Afghan Withdrawal by 2014

The NATO summit occurred this past week in Lisbon, and the major news that came out of it was that NATO ministers agreed to continue the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the technical name of the mission there). According to the comminique at the end of the meeting, the focus of the agreement was to continue the commitment of declining numbers (unspecified) into 2014, when all combat tasks will have been turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), leaving only a residue of NATO noncombatants (including American troops) behind. In other words, an Iraq-style drawdown and post-combat situation whre the U.S. is out but not out simultaneously.

This settlement, as it is chewed upon, regurgitated, and swallowed, is likely to please nobody, most of all the Afghans themselves (the Taliban has already called the decision “irrational”). People (myself included) who believe the active involvement of the United States should end much faster, are going to maintain that leaving NATO forces on the front lines will accomplish little substantively and simply represent greater human and material sacrifice for the troops and the Afghans themselves while not materially improving the prospects for the post-war peace. If one believes the war is unwinnable, as I do, three or more years of combat is a tragic waste. The NATO conferees anticipated this reaction (which will be more pronounced in other NATO countries than in the U.S.) and offered the bone that “if circumstances agree, it (withdrawal of combat troops) could be sooner.” How about tomorrow?

Critics on the other end of the spectrum will also be unhappy because of the simple fact of establishing any kind of deadline. Their consistent refrain about such deadlines (in Iraq, for instance) is that they simply encourage the opponent to wait out whatever the deadline is, wait for us to leave, then seize the moment. In their minds, setting a deadline is little more than a deferred form of surrender. 2014 is sufficiently far enough away so this objection will not be loudly raised at this point, but as the date grows nearer, it will. This criticism, of course, is only valid if one accepts the proposition that the war is in fact winnable in some sense, if one is perseverant enough to pursue it long enough. We are, after all, still hearing this argument about Vietnam, which has been over for 35 years.

The designation of 2014 also must be viewed through the lens of 2012–the next presidential year. It is a curious choice that, like so many the Obama administration has made recently, appeals neither to his core constituency or probably to the independent middle. Obama supporters on the left are pretty uniformly disappointed in Obama’s Afghan policy and want out now. The “shallow” withdrawals that NATO describes for 2011 are going to make them unhappier than they already are. It will not drive them into the arms of the Tea/GOP candidate, who is likely to adopt a “stay the course” position on Afghanistan, but it could make them less enthusiastic supporters of the campaign or even, at worst, cause them to sit out the election. The date is also unlikely to win any support from the right, which opposes any specification of withdrawal dates and would not vote for Obama if he promised to stay in Afghanistan for another 50 years.

That leaves the swing vote in the middle. They voted for Obama in 2008 and against him in 2010. Nobody seems to want to court them very badly. They are almost certainly going to be repelled by the Libertarian nut jobs the Tea Party has foisted upon the Congress, and they are generally less than enthusiastic about the deficits the administration is running up–part of which, of course, are powered by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Which way they go in 2012 will determine who enters or stays in the Oval Office in 2013. The shape of the economy (and especially the unemployment rate) will likely determine who they vote for, but Afghanistan will play a part as well, on two grounds. First, budget cutting/balancing is going to be a major part of the 2012 campaign, and by then, the public may well have figured out that anything like a balanced budget is impossible without a major defense contribution. But where does that contribution come from? Since Americans also overwhelmingly say they favor a robust defense, they will not support major cuts in ongoing defense expenditures. If that is true, where can one look for cuts? Afghanistan virtually jumps off the page of candidates. Second, if the war continues to go poorly (as it likely will), the middle may decide overwhelmingly that they want it to end. Would Obama buck such sentiment?

The most hopeful interpretation of the 2014 deadline is that those who chose it did so because they know they are going to exceed it. The Afghans fairly clearly do not want us around for three more years, and most of the NATO allies join American public opinion in that assessment. A 2014 withdrawal date is dismal news–the worst case–and if we can exceed that expectation and bring the troops home sooner, wouldn’t that be grand? And wouldn’t we be grateful when we enter the voting place (assuming much of this happens before November 2012)? Does this all sound kind of cynical? Yes it does, but given the mess we are in right now, any shard of hope is to be grasped.

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