Last night, President Barack Obama delivered a long-overdue speech outlining the initial phases of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to the president's plan, 10,000 U.S. troops will leave the war-torn country by the end of this year, followed by another 20,000 by the end of 2012, returning to the pre-2009 "surge" levels.
This plan constitutes a reduction of U.S. forces by a third by the end of next year, and while it is a refreshing proposal — especially considering that the reductions are to continue "at a steady pace" until a final exit in 2014 — it may not be rapid enough to fulfill the president's reasoning for withdrawal.
The president cited many reasons for leaving Afghanistan: the trillion dollar price tag, the loss of American lives in combat, and the need for Afghans to take responsibility for their own security. Yet, anything short of a rapid withdrawal — somewhere in the neighborhood of all combat forces by this time next year — leaves the door open for a further prolonged engagement in Afghanistan.
Many of the president's advisors, including Gen. David Petreaus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have expressed concern that the president's plan may move too fast without giving consideration to how the realities on the ground will develop over the course of a phased withdrawal. The tendency to favor a slow, lengthy drawdown is understandable. With almost 10 years of fighting, 1,500 American lives lost and over a trillion dollars spent, the thought of all the progress in Afghanistan evaporating in the dust of an American retreat is sickening.
Be that as it may, withdrawal is inevitable, and the sooner we cease the Sisyphean campaign in Afghanistan in favor of a renewed strategy that focuses on counterterrorism instead of occupation, the better. On the other hand, we cannot allow hubris to stand in the way of our own interests. The world is a far different place than when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001. The U.S. economy can no longer sustain a war financed with borrowed money. Al-Qaeda has displayed an ability to find sanctuary amongst the shadows in other countries, and it is clear that Afghanistan is not the "central front" in the war on terror that it was touted to be. In fact, that sort of sentiment is exactly what Osama bin Laden aimed to create with the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, the USS Cole in Yemen, and the 9/11 attacks. Encouraged by how the Soviet Union collapsed in the wake of their decade-long campaign in Afghanistan and enraged by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, bin Laden sought to recreate the Soviet's folly by drawing the U.S. into its own Afghan quagmire. It worked.
Other commentary responding to the president's withdrawal proposal will undoubtedly caution that a rapid withdrawal will endanger the fragile stability of the country. In an interview with Frontline two years ago, then-Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal said, in reference to the stability of Afghan provinces, "once you clear something and don't hold it, you probably didn't really hold it." In other words, if the progress made in Afghanistan is solely dependent on a U.S. military presence, then the so-called "stability" isn't that at all — it's simply a false and temporary sense of security inflated by American military presence.
The death of Osama bin Laden and public opinion polls favoring withdrawal have opened a door of opportunity for the president to pursue a bold and aggressive withdrawal strategy that is both strategically and politically viable. In 2008, then candidate Obama used his bold rhetoric to put himself in the White House. With an economy in the tank and a generation of fighting men and women scarred by almost a decade of combat, let's hope he’s bold enough now to end this war.
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