President Barack Obama announced to cut US troops in Afghanistan in view of successful attack to Osama bin Laden. However, top leaders in the military warn caustic consequences of premature withdrawal (“Military leaders know Obama’s decision is a disaster”; Post Partisan—Washington Post; June 23, 2011). The foremost objective in this war is not simply killing bin Laden himself, but founding stable democracy that allows no terrorist safe havens in the Af-Pak region.
Before pro-con discussions about troop reduction, we must understand a strategic overview in Afghanistan. The Foreign Policy Initiative has released a new report for basic picture of this war (“Fact Sheet: Success in Afghanistan is Critical to Prevailing in the War on Terror”; Foreign Policy Initiative; June 23, 2011). Quoting Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution (“Afghanistan's Role in Osama bin Laden Raid”; Daily Beast; May 10, 2011), this report insists that the United States keep alert to Al Qaeda as it would be rebuilt under a new leadership. As to war achievements, General David Petraeus said “US, NATO, and other ISAF forces have turned up the pressure on al-Qaeda and their affiliated groups in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have significantly degraded their ability to plan and conduct operations throughout the theater.” As agreed at NATO Lisbon Summit last November, US and NATO forces support the Afghan government to enforce laws and upgrade the capability of the Afghan security forces, in order to improve governance in Afghanistan. In conclusion, this report warns that precipitous withdrawal of Western troops will ruin achievements made in this war.
Troop reduction will change the strategy from counterinsurgency which is a labor intensive mission that requires protecting the civilian population, to counterterrorism which is a limited mission primarily to targeting militant leaders. Counterinsurgency responsibilities will be assumed by Afghan security forces. Secretary of Defense-then Robert Gates said, "a gradual shift that will really depend on what part of the country you're in.” (“Gates sees shifts in Afghanistan strategy”; Military Times; June 27, 2011) The problem is, whether such a precipitous change in strategy is appropriate or not. Also, the decision making process for troop withdrawal needs critical assessment.
Robert Kagan, Director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, comments that Barack Obama is an isolationist like presidents in the 1930s, and preoccupied with his own reelection victory. However, Kagan says that premature withdrawal will embolden terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba, as well Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region. Another 9-11 could inflict damages that costs more than the billions spent on the surge. Furthermore, US drawdown will provoke pullout of European allies (“Don’t Come Home, America”; Weekly Standard; July 4, 2011). For further understanding of Obama’s decision from critical viewpoints, a panel discussion at the Institute for the Studies of War on June 30 is very helpful. Three leaders including Senator John McCain, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and Retired Genera Jack Keane spoke at the event that was moderated by Michael O’Hanlon Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Keane narrated an overview of the war in Afghanistan. See the video below.
As an architect of the surge in Iraq, Keane made it clear that counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan did not make progress until sending additional troops in 2009. Regarding President Obama’s decision of massive withdrawal, Keane said the plan irresponsible and reckless, because it will ruin strategic gains the coalition forces achieved. While the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces were substantially destroyed, the Haqqani network is still rampant, which will be a formidable challenge to incoming ISAF Commander John Allen. Senator McCain agrees with General Keane, and said that troop pullout based on the calendar rather than the condition in the battlefield is absurd. In addition to combat strategies, political framework needs more attention. Though criticism for corruption undermines President Obama’s trust in the Karzai administration, three panelists emphasized compelling necessity of close partnership between two leaders. Also, they stressed that President Karzai’s sincere hope for some kind of security deals with the United States will help long term security in the region from Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau to the Indian Subcontinent. Also, panelists agreed that Pakistani involvement is vital, as terrorists receive substantial material support from safe havens in this country.
In addition to the strategy, the decision making process needs critical assessment. At the hearing of Senate Armed Service Committee on June 28, Lieutenant General John Allen who replaces General David Petraeus as the Commander in Afghanistan testified that President Obama’s original withdrawal plan was more aggressive than the announced one. Neither Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen nor General Petraeus support the plan, because troops will pull out in the midst of fighting season of the next year. In Afghanistan, guerillas act from April to November when the climate is warm enough to fight. Therefore, Stephen Hayes, Senior Writer of the Weekly Standard, criticizes Obama’s attitude to top military advisors (”General Reveals that Obama Ignored Military's Advice on Afghanistan”; Weekly Standard Blog; June 28, 2011). Earlier, Defense Secretary-then Gates said that US forces be fully committed to global security including Afghanistan and Iraq (“U.S. Military Will Always Have 'A Full Menu,' Secretary Gates Says”; NPR News; June 2, 2011).
Why doesn’t President Obama give sufficient considerations to those advices? It is Vice President Joseph Biden that has significant influence on Obama’s decision. Biden told Obama that the military went beyond the goal of “defeating Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from toppling the Afghan government and improving security.” Biden’s opinion of targeted and small scale deployment over mass deployment is gaining ground in view of chronic tension with the Karzai administration and the kill of Osama bin Laden. Also, Biden is winning Obama’s trust in a broad range of policy issues from Iraq to the budget (“Obama’s Growing Trust in Biden Is Reflected in His Call on Troops”; New York Times; June 24, 2011). White House politics and bilateral political interactions impose more influence on Obama’s decision than strategic necessities. The Republican side is also a problem. As recent poll suggests that three quarter of Americans hope some level of troop cut, Republican presidential candidates are divided in Afghan strategy. While Former Governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty criticizes Obama’s plan, other candidates such as Former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney says war costs needs to be considered (“GOP hopefuls stake out Afghanistan positions”; Washington Post; June 22, 2011). In response to drastic withdrawal plan of cutting 33,000 soldiers by September 2012 and war-reluctant public opinion, Senator John McCain, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and Senator Lindsey Graham, jointly spoke out against the troop cut. They do not believe in successful negotiations with the Taliban, and argue that the withdrawal plan will encourage the enemy (“McCain, Lieberman, Graham criticize Afghan drawdown plan”; Washington Post; July 4, 2011).
Facing vehement criticism coming from leading politicians and generals, new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Afghanistan to reaffirm the Obama plan, when he met with President Hamid Karzai. Regarding the War on Terror, Panetta says Al Qaeda is fading and targeted attack to terrorist leaders will bring victory to the US forces. On the other hand, Secretary Panetta urged more attention to Yemen, another terrorist haven (“Panetta: U.S. ‘within reach’ of defeating al-Qaeda”; Washington Post; July 9, 2011). As widely discussed, the budget and incoming presidential election are key issues. However, other points such as White House politics and an overview of Middle East political transition must be given sufficient consideration as well. Those aspects play more important roles in decision making rather than strategic rationality in Afghanistan.