Obama's Afghanistan speech: The troop withdrawal is dramatic, but it could work.

Military analysis.
June 22 2011 10:13 PM

A Brand-New Plan for Afghanistan

Obama's troop withdrawal marks a dramatic—and risky—shift in strategy.

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As with the Iraq surge, on which this one was partly based, the idea was to buy enough time and to rack up enough gains—in security, popular trust, and competent governance—so that the Afghan military could recruit and train enough of its soldiers to provide for its own defense, and so that the Afghan government could build a loyal base among its people.

Obama said in his speech Wednesday night that significant progress had been made in these areas, enough so that the U.S. drawdown—the logical aftermath of a U.S. surge—can begin.

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Yet many of the original COIN advocates, including Secretary Gates and several top military officers, have been arguing in recent weeks that the Afghans—the government and the armed forces—aren't quite ready for a substantial American drawdown. The U.S. and NATO troops, with increasing assistance from the Afghans, have made substantial gains against the Taliban—but the pressure needs to be kept up, even stepped up, to sustain and build on those gains.

These advocates say that by beginning—and, even more, by announcing—a substantial troop withdrawal, Obama may be undermining and jeopardizing those gains. One of the biggest effects of the Iraqi surge was psychological. Suddenly, all the players perceived that the Americans were staying, and that affected everyone's strategic calculations.

When Obama announced his surge in December 2009 at West Point, he simultaneously announced that he would begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. His reasons were in part to assure the Democratic Party that he wasn't getting trapped in a quagmire and, more still, to warn Afghan President Hamid Karzai that our commitment wasn't open-ended, that he had to start reforming his government, in order to build a sense of legitimacy among his people, while our troops were still there to provide security.

However, the Taliban and the Afghan people were also listening to the West Point speech, and all they heard was: "The Americans are leaving." In an insurgency war, most of the population sits on the fence; they will side not only with those serving their interests but, just as important, with those who seem to be winning. And it looked like the American side wouldn't be winning.

When Gen. David Petraeus took over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he stepped up the raids and airstrikes on Taliban forces, in part to convince the local people that we were winning. Some officers and consultants reasoned that, once July 2011 rolled around and people saw that the United States was still there and fighting, they would conclude that maybe we weren't leaving after all.

These same officers and consultants now worry that Obama's announcement of an impending troop withdrawal—a withdrawal larger, or more accelerated, than some of his military advisers wanted—might wipe out this hope; that it could reaffirm the initial impression, by Afghan friends, foes, and neutrals, that we are leaving after all. Since the Taliban are Pashtun Afghans, they'll be staying; and so, the fear is, many ordinary Afghans may side with the force that stays.

This is why the COIN advocates wanted Obama to withdraw only a few thousand troops over the next year. They wanted to buy more time to inflict damage on the Taliban, and to build up the people's allegiance to the Afghan government, so that, by the time we did leave, the balance of power might be tipped more in our favor.

However, the case can be made—and the CT-Plus advocates have made it—that more time will in fact buy us little. Karzai's government has not made the reforms he needs to make. If this sort of war is a contest for popular legitimacy between the government and the insurgents, Karzai's government hasn't gained much ground. The U.S. military has made much effort and sacrifice to give him security and thus the space that he needs to take political risks and make progress in building legitimacy; but he hasn't taken advantage of that space.

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