(Associated Press)

— President Obama, June 22, 2011

President Obama’s speech Wednesday night announcing that over the next 15 months he would remove the “surge” troops from Afghanistan had an air of inevitability about it. When the president announced the surge in December 2009, he said that they would begin coming home in July 2011. He added a caveat — “we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground” — but the message was clear that some troops would be coming home. The only question was how many.

The decision to remove 10,000 at first leaves commanders significant flexibility this summer, allowing them to keep as many combat troops as possible and focus on rotating out support personnel. The pledge to remove another 23,000 troops by next September — in time for the presidential election — may be more difficult, since many troops apparently will be packing up to go home when they could instead be in the thick of the summer fighting season. The military experts will have a field day with these questions.

We were curious how the president justified having achieved the right conditions on the ground — have “met our goals,” as he put it. The speech actually provided little insight into his thought process and did not provide a decision tree. Instead he asserted “al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11” and he cited the killing of Osama bin Laden and information obtained from bin Laden’s lair.

Then, he made the statement above. The statistics are a bit unclear, but Obama’s claims appeared to be cut from the same rhetoric cloth that former President George W. Bush used to claim progress in Iraq.

“Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country.”

When Obama announced the surge, U.S. officials suggested they expected an influx of 5,000 to 7,000 more NATO troops. There are some indications that the raw numbers may have gone up by that much, but in the meantime some key countries, such as the Netherlands, have begun to pull out.

It is also appears that NATO has consistently disappointed U.S. officials with the quality and quantity of the forces that were provided, especially in the training of Afghan security forces—a key goal of the surge.

News clips are replete with accounts of frustration by U.S. officials about the inability of NATO to supply the right troops.

Here is one example from a year ago: “The most recent available figures show that of the more than 5,200 trainers we need, only about 2,600 are on the ground. Secretary Gates has deployed 850 U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan to serve as a stopgap. According to a May 29th report from Lieutenant General [William] Caldwell, the training mission has yet to receive 750 trainers pledged by NATO members.”

Also, last year, NPR reported: “American soldiers — and even private contractors — are spearheading the effort to build an Afghan army and police force, so American and NATO troops can one day leave. But Pentagon officials and military officers say NATO nations still aren’t doing enough.”

In a recent speech at NATO, Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised coalition efforts but bluntly said the Afghanistan “mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will. Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – not counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more.”

“Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people.”

This is another fuzzy figure. Note that Obama did not provide a total number of troops, just a growth estimate. When Obama announced the surge, there were about 97,000 troops and 95,000 police officers, and officials said they had a goal of 282,000 total, or 90,000 more. Have they exceeded the goal? That’s unclear — and the White House would not clarify Wednesday night — but it appears U.S. officials now count other elements of what are known as Afghan National Security Forces, such as what is the equivalent of neighborhood watches with guns.

In a major speech in April, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the head of NATO training in Afghanistan, said there were 88,000, “to be exact,” new troops in the police, army and air force, bringing the total to 285,000. Have that many extra troops been trained in the past two months to bring it “over 100,000,” or does the White House simply like nice round numbers?

It is not just quantity but quality, of course. Eighteen months ago, many Afghan troops were illiterate. In his relatively upbeat speech, Caldwell said that 75,000 had been given training that at least had brought them to the first grade level.

The Bottom Line

The president’s speech had a ring of “mission accomplished” to it. The real test will come when Afghan forces begin to fully replace the U.S. troops who are leaving. That test will come soon enough, though given the timing of the troop withdrawals, the full impact of this announcement may not be apparent until after the 2012 elections.

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