Exclusive: Obama’s Secret Afghan Exit Formula

Obama is keeping under wraps a hush-hush plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

By July 15, President Obama will unveil a plan to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by upward of 30,000, but to withdraw them slowly under military guidance over 12 to 18 months, according to administration officials.

In sum, the quick exiters get the big 30,000 or so number, and the die harders get one last year-plus at near full strength further to weaken the Taliban. Ain’t democracy grand? Officials caution that since no announcement will be made for almost a month, and since Obama is still being battered from all sides, the projected withdrawal total and end dates could change somewhat. No one, not even Obama’s most intimate national security aides—Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, and Ben Rhodes—can be certain of their boss’s final calculations, but key officials feel confident that the president’s secret formula will generally hold.

Sorting out the formula is for chess players. The U.S. now deploys about 100,000 troops, in addition to about 40,000 NATO troops. NATO, including Washington, recently announced that it will remove all combat forces by January 2015 (i.e., three and a half years from now). The 30,000 U.S. troops to be withdrawn beginning this July constitute the full amount deployed in the so-called surge decision of late 2009. Their departure will still leave 70,000 U.S. armed personnel in country. All these numbers, to say nothing of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, make for intriguing maneuvering in Washington.

The positions of senior officials in this process reflect a mixture of serious thought and gamesmanship. Vice President Biden along with NSC Adviser Tom Donilon mark the center—there is no left. They’re pressing for a July announcement of 30,000 in cuts over 12 months. Tellingly, Obama already gave public voice to their rationale. “We will begin a transition this summer,” he said a week ago. “By killing bin Laden, by blunting the momentum of the Taliban, we have now accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish 10 years ago.” In other words, most of the job is done, and the United States and NATO now can safely transition from a counterinsurgency approach, with a lot of troops and a lot of nation-building, to a more limited and focused counterterrorist strategy. Interestingly, the Biden-Donilon approach expects little from negotiations with the Taliban and seeks to proceed with troop cuts regardless of these negotiations. Their bottom line: start transferring responsibility for the war to where it practically and ultimately belongs, to the Afghans.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn’t settled on a formula but tends to share Pentagon concerns about withdrawing too quickly and reopening doors for a Taliban surge. She is likely to emerge somewhere between the key White House clan and the military brass; that is, somewhere between the 3,000 to 5,000 desired by the military and the full 30,000 wished for by Biden. She also might seek a compromise on the withdrawal timetable. Clinton wants to push ahead on the negotiating front as well, though with a special twist. She wouldn’t talk solely with the Taliban leadership; rather, she’d also attempt to split off as many individual tribal leaders as possible.

As for departing Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, there isn’t much mystery about his dearest preference: the lowest possible reduction in the longest possible time. Barring that, he’d go along with a reduction figure of about 15,000 over 18 months with emphasis on backloading the withdrawal of combat troops and frontloading support forces. U.S. forces, he insists, can tip the scales militarily. “[I]f we can hold on to the gains we’ve made over the last year or so and expand security further,” Gates said last week, “then we may be in a position where we can say we’ve turned the corner by the end of this year.” This line of reason, expressed publicly, tends to box in Obama politically, and won’t be easy to neutralize. It reinforces mounting criticism that Obama is “abandoning” Afghanistan, a false and nasty charge.

One lion has yet to roar: General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and soon-to-be CIA director. Everyone knows his position likens to Gates’. But just maybe, Obama and Petraeus have agreed that the general will say his piece in full only in the privacy of the Oval Office. If he would talk publicly only of options, that would relieve some pressure on the White House.

The outgoing CIA director and incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will remain low-key during this round. He doesn’t want to alienate his new Pentagon home or undercut Obama. As for President Karzai of Afghanistan, his course is certain: Scream against large-scale withdrawals.

One final piece of the July formula that remains to be developed is the policy to explain the withdrawals and guide future actions. To begin with, Obama should assert the truth: He has accomplished America’s primary goal of “defeating” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the same time, he should remind all that the Taliban was vital only insofar as it provided safe haven to al Qaeda, and that any future Taliban threat can be blunted by the “rebuilt” Afghan forces along with a small residual U.S. force and other means. He should also repeat Gates’ line that the Taliban has already been weakened and add that after 10 years, it’s time for America’s Afghan allies to step up with some U.S. help. He’s got to define this help in terms of a small residual U.S. force, a level of about 15,000 troops to be reached in late 2013, to provide logistics, intelligence, and pinpoint military punches when necessary. Of equal import, he’s got to lay out a diplomatic strategy of containing and deterring extremism in Afghanistan by partnering with India, China, Russia, Pakistan, and even Iran. These are all states that can partner around their shared fear of Taliban religious extremism and the drug trade.

Nor should the president shy away from establishing the centrality of the U.S. economy in U.S. national security. Saving money in Afghanistan is nothing to run away from, as White House press secretary Jay Carney sought to do last week. “Obviously every decision is made with a mind towards cost,” he said, “but this is about U.S. national security interests, primarily.”

Quite the contrary—reducing America’s debt is essential to maintaining U.S. military strength and diplomatic power. Obama could save more than $100 billion a year on the Pentagon budget just by sequestering savings after exiting the Iraq and Afghan wars. That goal is a good reason to start the withdrawal process this July at 30,000 and remove them within a year—and then take most of the remaining forces out by the end of 2013. Whatever happens in Afghanistan now or five years from now won’t determine America’s future; what happens with America’s crushing debt will.