Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I think I'm Satisfied

President Obama will apparently announce that we will withdraw 5,000 troops from Afghanistan this summer and 5,000 more over the winter or in the spring of next year:

In a prime-time address from the White House, Obama is likely to outline a phased withdrawal that will bring 5,000 troops home this summer and an additional 5,000 by winter or spring 2012, according to a senior U.S. defense official. That timeline could allow military commanders to keep high troop levels in Afghanistan for two more crucial fighting seasons.

If the military is allowed to choose what to withdraw, we can keep the line units fighting while we pull out support personnel who were needed to enable two surges over the last two years (one authorized by Bush that pushed us to 69,000 and one authorized by Obama that put us near 100,000). I don't know if our military will have the flexibility to do this:

It's not clear whether Obama's decision would require the Pentagon to pull out two full brigades or, instead, withdraw a collection of smaller combat and support units with an equivalent number of troops.

We shouldn't need as many support troops now, and if reductions of 10,000 are too much, we may have the option of hiring civilian contractors to make for no net loss of required support.

I can't complain with this apparent course of action. I don't think this reduction cripples our war effort. It may have no effect at all (which is probably why the anti-war people will be outraged over this decision). As I've written, I think we could win at 69,000, although it would take longer.

So you'll have no complaints from me about this decision on the Afghanistan War. Kudos to the President for resisting his anti-war base. But as polling shows, where are they going to go?

UPDATE: I didn't hear the actual speech. I was drinking beer downtown on a patio with thunderstorms lurking all around. The initial drawdown is a bit faster since 10,000 are supposed to be out by the end of this year rather than the spring. What really bothers me is that 23,000 more are supposed to be out by the end of summer 2012--timed nicely for the election. It bothers me because it seems based on politics rather than strategy. Hopefully, conditions justify that timetable. Hopefully, if conditions don't justify the pace, President Obama would stretch it out.

Also, will our NATO allies use our partial drawdown as an excuse to leave before they should?

That said, I can't condemn the withdrawal. Yes, after focusing on the south and southwest, we are poised to turn to the east for a major effort to defeat the Taliban, so major fighting is still ahead despite the drawdown. But with 65,000 troops left after next year, tens of thousands of Coalition troops (I assume), 300,000 Afghan troops and police, and whatever number of local defense forces there are, we should have enough to defeat the Taliban. I still think that we shouldn't aim for too much there. I don't think we should push for a unitary state with a strong Kabul government. I think that is a bridge too far:

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).

It will take longer to win with a faster withdrawal, I concede, which means there are more chances to blow it and lose. But I am also worried about having so many troops in landlocked Afghanistan at the end of less-than-ideal supply lines.

So bottom line, I'm worried that politics is trumping strategy with this decision. But I think we should still win despite the lower troop numbers, even though it will take longer. As long as we don't walk away from the place when our troops are leaving, we can still prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for al Qaeda.

UPDATE: Admiral Mullen says that the aggressive pace of drawdowns is risky. That tracks with my judgment ("... more chances to blow it and lose."). Even though I think we can win, much of my unease with President Obama's decision stems from my lack of confidence that deep down our president wants to win this war more than he wants to avoid losing it before his reelection campaign.

UPDATE: More doubts about our president's commitment to victory:

President Obama isn't terribly concerned with winning wars.

In his speech last night, Obama talked about "our effort to wind down this war," "responsibly end[ing] these wars," and "tak[ing] comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding." He did not use the words "win" or "winning"; the word "victory" appeared only in a reference to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The stylistic decision is revealing; ideologically and temperamentally, Obama is still not entirely comfortable as a war president. He is still naturally attracted to the political appeals to war-weariness that his 2008 campaign was largely built on.

The objective of fighting a war shouldn't be the White House.

On the surface, President Obama has committed forces to win. But deep down, I just don't trust him on war issues.