Afghanistan: War Without End?

Obama promised no open-ended occupation – and to draw down forces from July. A 2.5% cut is hardly an encouraging start

Afghanistan was supposed to be the campaign promise that President Barack Obama actually kept. He said he would escalate that war, and sure enough he did. Is he now going back on promises he's made as president, by proposing to withdraw 2.5% of US forces in July?

Here are the relevant promises:

"After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home ... [O]ur troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own." - President Barack Obama, 1 December 2009

"I'm confident that the withdrawal will be significant. People will say this is a real process of transition; this is not just a token gesture." - President Barack Obama, 15 April 2011

"In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it." - Vice President Joe Biden, quoted in Jonathan Alter's The Promise

But let's first review how we got here. When loyal Democrats heard candidate Obama say he would escalate the war as president, they mistakenly understood him to say he would end it. Progressive bloggers have planned a panel for next month to discuss their disappointment with this "broken promise" that was actually kept.

President Obama sent the first additional 17,000 troops before he'd been in office a month and explicitly before coming up with any plan for Afghanistan. Sending the troops was, apparently, an end in itself. Then, Obama sent more. He got the total up from 33,700 US troops in late 2008 to 68,000 in late 2009. These numbers do not include tens of thousands of European troops, untold numbers of "intelligence" personnel, mercenaries hired through the US state department and US defence department contractors almost equal in number to the US troops.

Obama's 2009 "surge", which more than doubled the US troop presence in Afghanistan preceded any public debate on an Afghanistan surge. The publicly debated surge, actually Obama's second, was "debated" between the commander-in-chief and his supposed subordinates, and then executed in 2010. By the end of 2010, according to the US defence department (pdf), there were 96,900 US troops and 87,483 supporting contractors in Afghanistan. In rough terms, there are 200,000 Americans now in Afghanistan, against the will of the American people. Here are some recent polls from the weeks and months preceding the killing of Osama bin Laden:

* By 73% to 21%, Americans say: withdraw a substantial number of US combat forces from Afghanistan this summer - ABC/Washington Post
* By 63% to 30%, Americans want complete withdrawal - Bloomberg (pdf)
* By 72% to 25%, Americans want to speed up the withdrawal - USA Today/Gallup
* By 53% to 39%, Americans say US troops should not be involved in Afghanistan - CBS
* By 50% to 44%, Americans say: remove all troops ASAP - Pew
* By 64% to 31%, Americans say the war has not been worth fighting - ABC/Washington Post
* By 58% to 40%, Americans oppose the war - CNN/Opinion Research Corporation (pdf)

That first poll, with the 73% in favour of a "substantial" withdrawal this summer, is a poll on whether the president should keep a promise. On 1 December 2009, President Obama said of his upcoming second "surge" in Afghanistan:

"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."

This deadline for "beginning" the withdrawal has been repeated for a year and a half. In May 2010, Obama said he was "confident" he could meet the deadline, but that it would just be a beginning. Many observers believed July 2011 was a promised date for completing a withdrawal, but in reality, it was always a promised date for beginning it. Still, most people assumed that beginning a withdrawal would involve a substantial number of troops leaving. After all, if a pair of "surges" of 70,000 troops lasts for years, in what sense are they "surges" rather than ordinary escalations?

In November 2010, the White House started talking about December 2014, leading the Washington Post to print this headline: "When it comes to Afghanistan policy, December 2014 is the new July 2011." It wasn't. July 2011 was still the date to start the withdrawal, and 2014 was the date by which a pretence would be established of Afghan "sovereignty", despite the ongoing presence of tens of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands, of foreign troops.

In President Obama's 25 January 2011 state of the union address, July was still the start date: "This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home." Yes, but how many troops, and how many contractors? Of 200,000 people, will you bring home three-quarters? Half? A quarter?

Apparently, the answer is 2.5%.

We learned this week that: "US military officers in Afghanistan have drawn up preliminary proposals to withdraw as many as 5,000 troops from the country in July and as many as 5,000 more by the year's end, the first phase of a US pullout promised by President Barack Obama, officials say." This is what you call a trial balloon. It could easily be revised upward if the American people or the United States' allies raised enough hell. It could go away entirely if we meekly accept it. The Wall Street Journal report continued:

"The proposals, prepared by staff officers in Kabul, are likely to be the subject of fierce internal debate in the White House, state department and Pentagon - a discussion influenced by calculations about how Osama bin Laden's death will affect the Afghan battlefield. The plans were drafted before the US killed the al-Qaida leader, and could be revised. They have yet to be formally presented to General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who must then seek White House approval for a withdrawal."

And this trial balloon is smaller than the 5% withdrawal it appears to be. You might assume that 5,000 troops from a total of 100,000 would mean 5,000 contractors departing as well, for a total of 10,000 people out of 200,000. But you'd be wrong. The 5,000 seems to be a total of troops and contractors:

"If approved by top military officers and the president, an initial withdrawal of 5,000 would represent a modest reduction from the current 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, allowing the military to preserve combat power through this summer's fighting season. Some of the troops that leave in July will be combat troops but commanders hope to minimise the impact by culling support staff as well."

In other words, 5,000 out of 200,000 - or 2.5% of US forces - would be withdrawn under this plan. Does that seem like a substantive beginning to you? It does to some anonymous military officials: "Some military officials believe a cut of 10,000 troops this year would be significant because it would represent one-third of the troop surge." The only thing significant here is the fudging of the numbers. We've "surged" close to 70,000, not 30,000, troops, plus a similar number of contractors.

According to Congressman Dennis Kucinich, "the announcement of such a paltry troop withdrawal is an Orwellian attempt to appear to drawdown the war without actually ending the war." Kucinich pointed out that at this pace of withdrawal, the Afghanistan war would drag on for another full decade. The proposal may actually be better than that, and worse as well. The plan that has now been floated publicly would supposedly withdraw 70,000 troops by 2014, meaning the pace of withdrawal would pick up. But 20,000 to 30,000 US troops would remain indefinitely. As would British troops. And multi-year plans are notoriously subject to revision.

I'm glad to be working with groups in the US and in the UK that intend to reject this latest plan. Now is the moment to put an end to the "global war on terror", not to ease our way into its permanent establishment.

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