Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been one busy official of late. Last week, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, he managed to apologize for U.S. helicopters killing nine boys collecting wood on a hillside in Kunar Province, even as he announced that a negotiating team would soon be dispatched from Washington to work out a “strategic partnership” with the Afghans. Such a “partnership” would, he indicated, keep the U.S. military in the country well past the 2014 “deadline” for the withdrawal of “combat troops.”
Of course, he discounted any American “interest in permanent bases” -- a phrase avoided since the Pentagon termed the mega-bases it was planning for Iraq at the time of the invasion of 2003 “enduring camps.” The Afghan bases won’t be labeled “permanent” either, not unless the “Afghans want it,” in which case “we can contemplate the idea.” In the meantime, bases on loan for a while would be just dandy!
Then Gates hopped to Europe to give a pre-labeled “deliberately undiplomatic speech” castigating Washington’s NATO allies for yakking too much about getting out of Afghanistan instead of gritting their collective teeth and “getting the job done right.” While he was there, the first hints began to emerge about the size of the promised American drawdown in Afghanistan slated to begin in July.
This represented a much-ballyhooed promise by President Obama in an address to the American people from West Point in December 2009. In it, he announced that he was surging 30,000 U.S. troops into that country, but added that the U.S. would “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” At the time, Washington’s punditocracy declared that this was “red meat” tossed to his antiwar Democratic political “base.”
The figures leaking out last week -- possibly in the neighborhood of 2,000 troops or “no more than several thousand” “thinned out” from noncombat forces in Afghanistan -- don’t even add up to a can of spam in red meat terms. Two thousand wouldn’t even be enough troops to ensure that an actual drawdown occurs, given the U.S. forces cycling in and out of the country regularly. (Keep in mind as well that, since June 2009, the number of private security contractors -- hired guns -- working for the U.S. military in that country has tripled to record levels, almost 19,000.)