COMMENTARY
 
Obama’s Troop Cuts: Too Little, Too Early?
On June 22, President Obama announced to withdraw 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan by September 2012, including 10,000 by the end of this year. The decision has come under criticism on two counts. The war-weary American people predominantly find the number too little, especially in the backdrop of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s death. The Taliban have also termed the drawdown of US troops as "symbolic." On the other hand, top US security officials consider the troop withdrawal as risky, particularly in terms of the recent counter-terrorism gains in Afghanistan.

The US Af-Pak strategy practiced by the Obama Administration has all along been motivated by pragmatic considerations. While announcing it in March 2009, President Obama had limited the overall strategic objective of the US military engagement in Afghanistan to the defeat of al-Qaeda and its hard-core allies. Since that specific objective required momentarily increasing the number of US combat troops, as other NATO countries were unwilling to share the burden of worsening Afghan war, the Obama Administration undertook two consecutive troop surges in the year.

Troops Surge

The second surge of 33,000 troops announced by the US leader on December 2, 2009 tripled the number of US troops since the time of the Bush Administration. In the subsequent year-and-a-half, the heightened counter-insurgency campaign by US, NATO and Afghan forces succeeded in weakening Taliban resolve in Kandahar, Helmand and Kunduz, known as the hub of insurgent activity. However, the casualty number of international troops in Afghanistan did increase during the time, mostly because of sporadic attacks by insurgent forces, including in IED explosions and suicide bombings.

The success of the surge has been attributed primarily to the new counter-insurgency approach of securing major population centres from insurgency attacks, rather than chasing the enemy in the countryside, coined originally by NATO commander General McChrystal and carried on by his successor General Petraeus. The renewed focus on al-Qaeda in the new approach also produced the optimal outcome: the killing of bin Laden. The pace of transferring security responsibility to Afghanistan’s national army and police may not have met the desired goal, but the process is presumed to make greater progress in the next over three years in accordance with the declared NATO goal of handing over security responsibility to Kabul by 2014.

President Obama’s decision to withdraw exactly the same number of troops that he had announced to deploy in Afghanistan in December 2009 makes quite a logical sense, if it is judged on the basis of what American and NATO forces have been able to achieve in Afghanistan with considerably enhanced level of US troops in the last two years.

Currently, apart from nearly 100,000 US troops, there are over 40,000 troops from other NATO countries. Even if 10,000 US troops withdrawal by the end of this year, the US and NATO would still retain over 130,000 troops in Afghanistan until the next fighting season in the country resumes in spring 2012. And even after the remaining 23,000 troops depart by September 2012—and, that also, only “steadily”, as President Obama said—well over 110,000 foreign troops, including 68,000 US troops, would still be stationed in Afghanistan to combat Taliban-led insurgency.

Here we must also factor in the additional Afghan security forces, numbering tens of thousands, who are trained to replace the number of withdrawing US soldiers until September 2012. Already close to 200,000 Afghan security forces are fighting alongside international forces. They may not match the fighting potential of the 33,000 US forces which are withdrawn by September 2012, but their sheer number, which may be far higher than the departing American forces, may help in keeping Taliban-led insurgents under pressure in subsequent months and years.

Pentagon Concerns

Nonetheless, it is clear that President Obama’s troop cuts decision does not conform to the position that America’ defence leadership or top commanders took on the issue. The outgoing Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, for instance had cautioned against initiating immediate withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, while arguing about the fragility of the gains made against Taliban. General Petraeus had openly asked for delaying the decision to retain US military superiority on the battlefield.

“The president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his testimony before the US House Armed Services Committee soon after the troop cuts were announced. He, however, added: “More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the President, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take.”

President Obama has, therefore, acted boldly on an issue that does entail potential risks. Taliban may have been weakened in their traditional military strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan; but they have succeeded in making inroads into northern, central and western Afghanistan. Reports also suggest non-Pashtun fighters joining Taliban ranks. However, the “steady” pace of US troop drawdown next year would ensure a certain level of flexibility to US and NATO commanders in Afghanistan to slow down or even halt the process of withdrawal if Taliban insurgency gained greater momentum next spring.

Security considerations pertaining to the Afghan battlefield constitute an important factor in determining the Obama Administration’s approach to what has become the longest war in American history. However, a couple of crucial political and economic factors have also motivated his troop drawdown initiative, which was, in fact, announced simultaneously with the second troops’ surge decision in December 2009.

These include the dwindling public support for the war effort, especially after the death of bin Laden as well as the enormous cost of continuing military engagement in Afghanistan. The ten-year war has already cost the United States half a trillion dollars. Each week, America spends some $5 billion on Afghan war effort, which is an unaffordable cost in times of economic recession at home. Populations and governments of major NATO member-states from the European Union, which itself is facing an economic quagmire, have long been weary of the Afghan war, and wish to end their military commitment by the end of 2014.

Taliban Talks

Last but not the least, we have to look at Obama’s troop cuts decision in the light of the ongoing US and Afghan government efforts, with cooperation from Pakistan and other countries, to reach out to the Taliban leadership for a negotiated end to the Afghan war. Robert Gates recently disclosed that Washington was, indeed, engaged in “outreach talks” with the Taliban.

The dialogue process may be in an infancy stage, but its official acknowledgement by the United States with the Afghan government in the lead is an important development. For it is an acknowledgement by the United States and its counter-terrorism allies in Afghanistan that the battle against Taliban is unwinnable through military means alone. Other parallel developments to facilitate the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, such as the creation of separate lists for al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists by the United Nations, are equally important.

Taliban’s participation in the initial rounds of the secret talks held recently in Qatar and Germany, with another one planned to take place in Dubai, means that they also understand the value of talking to the US and NATO for resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. Their reaction to Obama's troops' drawdown plan, calling it "symbolic" and vowing to continue the fight until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan reflects a maximalist position, just as the insistence of the United States about Afghan insurgents' renoouncing violence and al-Qaeda links, and willingness to accept the present Afghan constitution. Once the negotiating process enters a meaningful stage, the gap between the two extreme positions taken by those talking on behalf of the insurgent forces and counter-insurgent state parties will narrow down.

As for President Obama, he has his eyes fully focused on winning next year’s US presidential elections. Reservations expressed by Pentagon’s senior officials on his troop cuts decision, or criticism made by Republican leaders on the issue may have some rationality, as the security situation in Afghanistan remains unpredictable. However, if the United States can pursue military pressure along with offering economic incentives and undertaking the dialogue process with Taliban and other Afghan insurgents, we can foresee the end of combat engagement for international forces and the handing over of security responsibility to Afghanistan by 2014.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her own Congressional testimony soon after President Obama’s troop cuts announcement also referred to the same three-pronged approach to be pursued by the Obama Administration in resolving the Afghan conflict. If the path to peace in Afghanistan is pursued by exercising military, political and economic instruments simultaneously, then Obama’s decision to withdraw 33,000 US troops by September 2012 may only contribute to lessening the security quagmire in Afghanistan.

Copyright(C) Ishtiaq Ahmad