President Barack Obama's decision to pull 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer—10,000 of them by the end of this year—reflects a scaling back of U.S. goals and strategy in the war. Either that, or it doesn't make much sense.
The decision, which the president announced in a 15-minute national TV address Wednesday night, means that, over the next 15 months, all the "surge" troops that Obama ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009—one-third of the total number of U.S. forces in the country—will be going home. Their tours of duty would have been up by then anyway, but now they'll be replaced not by a fresh rotation of American soldiers or Marines but rather by Afghan security forces. And over the subsequent months, Obama said, the U.S. drawdown will continue at a steady pace—until the end of 2014, when Afghan troops will provide the mainstay of their country's security in every province.
The rationale is that we have made "substantial progress" toward the goal of defeating al-Qaida, reversing the Taliban's momentum, and training Afghan security forces. A senior administration official said, in a briefing earlier in the day, that there is "no terrorist threat from Afghanistan," at least not one capable of attacking the United States or its allies.
But by this logic, the president didn't need to order a troop surge in the first place. There haven't been many al-Qaida fighters, or Taliban militants with the ability or inclination to launch attacks beyond Afghan borders, for eight or nine years.
One reason why so few of these most militant terrorists have crossed the Pakistani border into Afghanistan is, of course, the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops. The question is whether these terrorists will remain bottled up after one-third of the American ground troops go home. The Afghan army has grown larger and stronger in the last couple of years, but will its troops be able to step in with the same, or at least sufficient, effectiveness? That's one of the gambles in this decision.
Obama stressed that the most potent elements of U.S. military strength will not be at all affected by this drawdown—the special-operations commandos who have mounted nighttime raids on Taliban hideouts and the "drones" and other aircraft that have fired "smart bombs" on similar targets both in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
But a question that has divided the administration from the start of its term in office is whether this strategy—known as "counterterrorism plus"—is enough. The chief advocate of CT-Plus has been Vice President Joe Biden, along with several members of the White House staff.
In the deliberations over Afghan war strategy that occupied the administration for much of the last few months of 2009, Biden was opposed by the majority of top military officers, as well as by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pushed for a counterinsurgency strategy, often abbreviated as COIN. One premise of COIN is that insurgency wars are contests for the loyalty of the population, so the aim is not simply to chase after bad guys (a game in which the bad guys can maintain the initiative) but to protect and control the population. To do this, a counterinsurgency force needs boots on the ground—lots of them—not just to sweep away the Taliban and other insurgents but to keep the areas secure, so the host nation's government can then come in and provide basic services, thus winning favor and drying up support for the insurgents.
At the end of 2009, President Obama sided mainly with the COIN advocates but not entirely. He approved the deployment of 30,000 extra troops (in addition to the 68,000 already there), enough to pursue a COIN strategy in major cities and certain vulnerable provinces where Afghan forces would be able eventually to take over security roles—but not enough to pursue the strategy nationwide. He agreed with Biden that permitting an all-out COIN strategy was a recipe for endless war that might not succeed anyway; but he agreed with his military advisers that CT-Plus alone probably wouldn't do the trick—wouldn't reverse the Taliban's momentum or help cultivate an allegiance to the Afghan government among the people.