President Obama ran in 2008 on the premise that Afghanistan was the “good war.” But soon enough he was setting out a timetable for withdrawal. Then he sped up the withdrawal of surge troops in time for reelection. Now he gives every indication he will not leave behind any significant military presence, which (as many independent experts who have looked at it conclude) means we effectively have thrown in the towel on Afghanistan.
The Post reports: “Groups within the Obama administration are pushing to keep no more than a few thousand troops in Afghanistan after 2014, U.S. officials said, raising the prospect that the United States will be unable to keep its promise to fully train and equip Afghan security forces. As the debate over the size and scope of the post-2014 coalition mission nears its end, some in the administration are pressing for a force that could be as small as 2,500, arguing that a light touch would be the most constructive way to cap the costly, unpopular war.” Make no mistake; this is a political, not a military decision. (“Those troop levels are significantly lower than what some senior military officials have advocated, arguing that a sudden disengagement could lead to the collapse of a frail state and the onset of a new civil war. The low number also is a far cry from figures in the 10,000-to-30,000 range discussed among NATO allies and some U.S. officials as recently as a year ago.”)
Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative tells me, “That size force is nowhere near enough to achieve our goal of an Afghanistan that does not again become a safe haven for those trying to attack us. It appears that the White House has learned all the wrong lessons from its negotiations with Iraq over a post-2011 presence. The stakes in Afghanistan are, unfortunately, even higher.”
Likewise two experts, Fred and Kim Kagan, who shaped Afghanistan policy and worked hand in glove with Gen. David Petraeus, write:
Success in Afghanistan has always meant driving al Qaeda out and preventing it from returning. The U.S. cleared al Qaeda from the country in 2001-02 quickly, and with few forces. American efforts have since aimed at creating conditions in which Afghanistan will be able to keep al Qaeda out with limited international assistance. This part of the task has always been the most difficult. Yet it remains as vital today as it was in 2001. Failing at it means letting al Qaeda regain its footing in the land from which it launched the most devastating terror attack against the U.S. in history.. . .
But the military reality is that we cannot conduct either mission at the force level the president is considering.
We cannot conduct effective counterterrorism operations without having bases near the targets. The American military will rightly not send its forces to fight beyond the range of medevac and rapid reinforcement, and the commander in chief should never ask the military to do so. Afghanistan’s miserable terrain, with localized weather patterns that frequently block access through critical passes, requires a dispersed footprint with helicopters and fixed-wing air support as well as necessary medical and logistics facilities
In short, the president should be honest: The mission he previously said he wanted to accomplish can’t be achieved by the force level he apparently is willing to sustain. (Just goes to show he can create incoherent national security policy without Chuck Hagel’s assistance.)
Get used to this sort of bait and switch. The president likes to take victory laps and beat his chest, prematurely declaring victory over Al Qaeda, but he will not devote the manpower and material needed to accomplish anything approaching that happy state of affairs. Instead, we will have a hollowed-out military, minimal engagement and the gradual withering away of American influence. The Kagans conclude:
If a much-reduced U.S. force level is announced, Afghans will say that the Americans have abandoned their country. They will be right. With a drastically reduced U.S. presence, the Afghan government and army will fracture, warlords will begin fighting each other and the insurgents and terrorists in ungoverned spaces. The conditions will be ideal for al Qaeda’s return. That’s failure. And it will matter.
Someone might ask Chuck Hagel about that. I’d be curious to hear what rationale the administration is going to put forth on its policy of failure and its nasty habit of refusing to back up rhetoric with meaningful action.