Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Great Debate

Apparently, the battle to determine how quickly we begin to draw down troops in Afghanistan starting this July is in full swing in Washington:

The run-up to a decision by President Barack Obama this month on a US troop drawdown has once again exposed fissures between military leaders and White House officials over the war, which first came to prominence during a strategy review in 2009.

Secretary Gates, on his way out, is trying to shape the debate:

Gates, backing a modest drawdown, argued it was too early to draw any conclusions from the killing of bin Laden and that the Taliban needed to come under continued pressure to force them into peace talks.

He also said the financial cost of the US-led war should not be a decisive factor in such a high-stakes decision.

I agree that killing bin Laden should not change the numbers. If 5,000 was the number before bin Laden's killing, that should be the number now. The war isn't just about bin Laden. Recall we had to smash the Taliban government ally of al Qaeda in 2001 and since then the Taliban of Pakistan have joined the battle.

I also agree that the financial cost should not distract us from focusing on Afghanistan. The amount saved would be trivial compared to the budget gap we face.

I'm in a tough spot here on this question. During fall 2009 as President Obama weighed escalation options, I stood by my earlier estimation that we could win with 69,000 US troops (assuming enough Afghan security forces could be deployed). I worried that our supply lines were too fragile to support a larger force with acceptable risk. And I worried that more troops (and casualties and costs) could squander the public's patience even as we'd need to deal with the Pakistan Taliban beyond the reach of our ground forces.

I did, however, defer to our military's judgment that we needed the extra troops above 69K. I admitted that even if I was right that 69,000 could win the war, it would take longer and so maybe we needed to accept the risk of adding troops to push the time frame of victory forward. Perhaps as the anti-war groups turned on the formerly "good war" we didn't have the time to be patient after 8 years at war.

So I'm going to hope that the initial withdrawal is kept to 5,000 support troops and that we'll evaluate bringing more home after a few more months, and keep that conditions-based approach despite the approach of our 2012 election.