Political Math: The Artificial Drawdown in Afghanistan

22-Jun-2011 | Christopher Doyle

The popularity of pulling US forces out of Afghanistan cannot be denied. New poll results from the Pew Research Center suggest that 56% of those polled favor bringing US soldiers home as soon as possible. Even though roughly the same majority still thinks the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was the right one, the people are weary, the military personnel are even wearier still, war fatigue has long since set in, and much of America has tuned out altogether.

US involvement in Afghanistan has sauntered on for nearly a decade with some success in the removal of the Taliban from power and the near complete routing of any al Qaeda elements as well as the killing of Osama bin Laden, but those successes should be tempered against the failures, failures in combating corruption and the rise of the drug trade, failure to effectively apply aid programs in the most beneficial ways possible, and failure to stem the simmering anti-US tension in the greater region.

As President Obama is set to announce the number that begins the promised drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan, it is important to have perspective as to what that means. The unqualified, pre-announcement number looks to be 10,000 troops in July of this year, with another 20,000 troops by the close of 2012, effectively bringing home the same number of troops as President Obama ordered deployed to Afghanistan as part of a force surge in 2009.

Arguably, the situation in Afghanistan has not improved significantly since then. This is not to say the surge of forces did not work or were ineffective, but a military buildup can only ever hope to address part of the overall need. The President is under a lot of pressure to deliver on this promise of winding down the effort in Afghanistan, probably more so than any other promise of his 2008 Presidential campaign. Osama bin Laden, the primary target has been dealt with, so what is to stop a complete withdrawal? Well, a lot actually.

The reality is that bin Laden’s death has done very little to change events in the region. If anything, events worsened on the Pakistan side of the border with vocal elements in the Pakistani Military, Political, and Intelligence sectors feigning outrage over the incursion into Pakistani territory.

With that, from where do the 10,000/20,000 figures come? Honestly only the President knows. These figures are significantly higher than those recommended by US commanders but significantly less than those called for by war opponents in Washington DC. ISAF Commander General David Petraeus provided a measured recommendation in the 3-4,000 range while Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin is calling for a reduction of 15,000 soldiers by the end of this year. The President looks to have split the difference in choosing a political number. A number to satisfy a political need.

In his article “Obama’s Ambivalence on Afghanistan” for commentarymagazine.com, Max Boot ponders the anticipated figure and wonders why there is a call for a drawdown at all. Like Senator John McCain stated earlier this week, Boot seems to think that the effort “will require at least another campaigning season”. A more optimistic Sen. McCain says that with “one more fighting season, we can get this thing pretty well wrapped up.” With little discernable change from year to year, devoid of any sort of major shift in tactics or towards a political solution, there is little evidence that another fighting season will make a difference.

Boot writes, “This drawdown could jeopardize the success of the entire operation and has the potential to be a huge political setback for the president.  He will be judged ultimately not on how fast he withdrew forces from Afghanistan but on what kind of Afghanistan he left behind. I would think, therefore, that having committed himself to the war effort already, it would be in his interest to do everything possible to see it through, notwithstanding the political criticism he might incur along the way.”

I am not sure how these statements could be more wrong. At this point, after a decade of fighting with little obvious progress, many of the people in the US simply want forces out of Afghanistan, win, lose, or draw. The state of the Afghanistan left behind is of little consequence to Main Street, USA as long as it does not once again, become a staging area for attacks on the US. With 100,000 US soldiers in the country, it is largely ignored, with no US troops, Afghanistan would be completely ignored. It is in the President’s best political interest to bring soldiers home, that is what constituents want to see, consequences be damned. Many citizens of the US are resigned to a state of mind that Afghanistan will never be settled, US involvement or no US involvement.

To Boot’s second sentiment, President Obama has never committed himself to the war effort. He took it on as a legacy of the Bush Administration and never made an attempt to make it his own. The President is much too cautious for that in the event it turns unpalatable than it is currently. It is a constant monitoring of image and impression that drives the decision making of President Obama. On nearly all issues he attempts the approach least likely to reflect poorly on his administration. The figure of 10,000 soldiers represents a large enough reduction to appear significant without presenting a hurdle too high for commanders in the field to clear. The President wants to appear as if he is doing something significant without running the risk of harming the effort, and therefore his image, with immediate effect.

The problem with dates and figures is that they are almost always politically driven and in the effort to gain re-election, often adhered to regardless of the needs of the events to which they apply. ‘July 2012’, ‘the end of 2014’, ‘10-20-30,000 troops’…all arbitrary figures to serve a political motivation, to provide a certain appearance, to lend credence to an idea, or worse, for the Washington DC version of “I told you so!”. The war in Afghanistan has been devastating to many, but walking away for political reasons by applying artificial numbers to real decisions, is a guaranteed disaster.