In October 1966, as the Vietnam War was spiraling out of control, Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., now-famously suggested that we simply declare victory and bring the troops home. He added, in a less well-known coda, “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”
Lyndon Johnson would have done well to take the idea seriously. Now it seems Barack Obama is doing just that in Afghanistan.
That’s one way to read Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remark Wednesday that, “hopefully,” all U.S. combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the middle or end of 2013—not a year later, as had previously been announced.
Panetta let loose the news while talking with reporters en route to Brussels, not in a formal announcement. He emphasized that this drawdown would be a transition, not a withdrawal. There will still be U.S. troops in Afghanistan to advise, assist, and train local security forces, at least through 2014, as the NATO members had decided at a conference in Lisbon 15 months ago.
White House and Pentagon spokesmen, apparently caught off-guard by Panetta’s comment, waved it away as nothing new. Rather, they said, it simply specified the pace at which the United States would carry out the longstanding plan to draw down forces and transfer combat operations to the Afghans. They hastened to add that Panetta said this timetable would “hopefully” be followed; it could be changed.
What does this all mean? A few inferences can be drawn with fairly high confidence.
First, President Obama really is getting out of there. Last June, he announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of the year (which he did) and another 23,000 by the following summer (which—bet a lot of money on this—he will). That will leave 68,000 troops in Afghanistan this fall, and Obama said that the drawdown would continue at a steady pace till 2014.
At some point during this steady exit, there won’t be enough American troops to conduct effective combat operations, except perhaps along the Pakistani border, where fighting has tended to be fiercest. So it makes sense that most of the remaining troops would shift to an “advise and assist” role, especially since—in tandem with the U.S. drawdown—Afghanistan’s army will be taking more of a lead role in staving off insurgents.
It’s unclear whether the Afghan army is ready for this transition. Panetta’s remarks no doubt send a message to President Hamid Karzai and his commanders: Get ready; this is happening, and soon.
Second, Obama and Panetta have presented this drawdown (a la George Aiken) as the product of military success. The claim is half true but also a bit disingenuous.
Yes, we have accomplished a good part of the mission: Bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is crumbling, the Taliban’s momentum has been halted, the Afghan army is improving. One could make the case—and Panetta, Vice President Joe Biden, and national security adviser Tom Donilon have reportedly done so with particular conviction—that U.S. interests in Afghanistan are no longer vital.
However, Obama’s pullout—and its recent acceleration—also stems from a conclusion that the U.S. war strategy hasn’t succeeded and is extremely unlikely to succeed any time soon. When Obama decided in December 2009 to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he did so as part of a shift to a new counterinsurgency strategy, as recommended by the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (modeled in part on the strategy employed in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus, who would later replace McChrystal). The core idea of counterinsurgency (COIN) is not so much to chase after bad guys (though it does involve some of that) but rather to protect the population—to live among the people, in their neighborhoods, and thus earn their trust, which will embolden them to provide intelligence on where the bad guys are, as the challenge in fighting insurgents isn’t killing them but finding them. But an equally important element of this strategy is to create a zone of security, so the government (with outside help) can provide basic services to the people and thus bolster their support—which will in turn dry up support for the insurgents.
Some have called this strategy “clear-hold-build”—clear an area of insurgents, hold it (i.e., stay there) so the insurgents don’t come back, and meanwhile build legitimacy for the government. One thing about this strategy is that it takes a long time, costs a lot of money, and results in a lot of casualties (at least in the short term, though it’s unpredictable how long the “short term” lasts).