All the D.C. punditocracy is playing a numbers game about President Obama’s troop reductions from Afghanistan. And once, again, that misses the whole point of the war’s next phase. What matters isn’t how many troops Obama withdraws this year, or next. It’s how the drawdown supports Taliban peace talks, the only real ticket out of the war.
Our sources tell us that if the president has even settled on a number to unveil in a Wednesday night speech, he’s not sharing it very widely. Still, the Los Angeles Times confidently reports that he’ll remove 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, with the remaining 20,000 surge forces to follow by 2012. The New York Times and the Washington Post are more circumspect, reporting that the White House is still debating how to structure the drawdown.
Notice that doesn’t even end the 2009 Afghanistan surge, let alone the war. Here’s why.
Even if Obama decides to pull out all the 30,000 troops he ordered sent to Afghanistan in a December 2009 speech at West Point, that still won’t constitute the end of the reinforcements he ordered earlier same year. It’s easy to forget, but Obama sent 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan as one of his first acts in office. Front-load the withdrawal of “West Point” troops, and 68,000 U.S. troops will still remain.
There the majority of them will stay until 2014, when the Afghans are supposed to take over combat duties. But those troops are largely illiterate. Many still walk off the job, and some have taken to killing their American sponsors. The general in charge of training them thinks they’ll need mentoring until 2017. Then there are negotiations with the Afghan government for long-term basing accords.
The military, as we’ve been reporting, wants a token withdrawal this year — maybe two brigades. Support troops, not the guys who pull triggers, would leave first. Afghanistan’s swarm of drones, surveillance aircraft and spy blimps would stay.
All this is intended to maximize the U.S.’ ability to withstand a Taliban attempt to reclaim the south and batter the insurgency in the east in 2012. If Obama agrees, the end of the Afghan surge to resemble the backloaded way he staggered withdrawal from Iraq.
But none of these options represent a path to ending the war. That can only come through a political strategy. And that means negotiating with the Taliban.
Obama hasn’t succeeded at peeling off low-ranking Taliban troops with job offers, a process called “reintegration.” Why? Because reintegration is untethered to an initiative to get their commanders to end the insurgency. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced on Sunday that preliminary peace talks with the Taliban are under way, but he’s not confident in their progress.
However the peace talks go, the Taliban have proven that they can remain a fighting force even as the U.S. military batters it. No U.S. officer, from Gen. David Petraeus on down, thinks the Afghanistan war can be won militarily. Hopes for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to step up his governing skills have evaporated, as Karzai spends more time denouncing the very U.S. troops who bolster his rule. The only Plan B is talking peace with the Taliban, something the Afghan and Pakistani governments both support.
That means the key criteria for determining how the Afghanistan war will end won’t be how fast the drawdown goes. It’ll be how the drawdown supports the peace talks. Obama could float temporary halts in hostilities to entice the Taliban to more serious negotiations. Or he could say that the fighting will continue in intensity if the Taliban are intransigent. It could go any number of ways.
But if Obama’s Wednesday speech doesn’t explain how the drawdown supports a political strategy for ending the war, it’ll mean one thing: he has no idea how to get out of Afghanistan.