- Thomas Ruttig: Real reconciliation in Afghanistan
- Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman: Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy
- Brian Katulis: The U.S. still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan
- Gerard Russell: Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment
- Michael Waltz: Obama's dangerous message
- Masood Aziz: Are we making the same mistakes again in Afghanistan?
- Douglas A. Ollivant: In Afghanistan, huge challenges remain
Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment
The President has taken a safe approach in his speech last night on Afghanistan, in terms of domestic politics. He cannot easily be accused of playing fast and loose with national security, given that he will likely have more troops in Afghanistan at the end of his first term as there were at the beginning (though analyzing troop numbers can be misleading, based on the number of contractors deployed and the nature of troops that are withdrawn). At the same time the numbers -- 10,000 leaving this year and 23,000 next -- sound sizeable enough to placate at least some of those who are tired of the expense and unpleasantness of the Afghan war.
I wish he had gone further. Whatever happens on the field of battle, what will win or lose the fight for stability in Afghanistan is the mass political psychology of the Afghan people. There is evidence that the sheer scale of the Coalition presence in Afghanistan, and the way that it operates, has sapped the Afghan commitment to the struggle against the Taliban. Most obviously, when the Afghan president himself complains that the Americans are occupiers, it is not easy to argue that Coalition forces are there at his request, fighting a fight led by him. There could hardly be a clearer sign that the time has come to trust the Afghans to defend themselves, and reduce the foreign troop presence more significantly.
On the other hand, the timing of the announcement was unfortunate. It came just a few days after President Karzai revealed that the U.S. was having talks with the Taliban. Defense Secretary Roberts Gates, and now the President in his speech, have confirmed that fact. The impression that may result from this series of confirmations, especially among Afghans, is that the U.S. wants to cut a deal in order to withdraw.
It would in my view have been better if the announcement of troop withdrawals could have been coupled with a longer-term commitment to the future of Afghanistan. A promise that even just 10,000 troops would stay for thirty years -- unobtrusively, in bases, subject to the agreement of the Afghan government and operating only with its permission, providing air power, training and weaponry for Afghan government forces -- would be worth more than having 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, fighting in its villages and farms.
This is all easy to say, of course. Militarily, Afghan forces almost certainly need more time to be ready for a large-scale U.S. withdrawal -- a lot more time. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) estimates that no single Afghan unit can operate without foreign assistance, although when I was in Kabul last month, some Afghans pointed out that no unit will want to lose its resource-rich foreign mentors by proving that it doesn't need them.
The question here though is political, not military. It is a question of depriving the Taliban of their most powerful weapon, which is the claim that they are defending Afghanistan and their enemies are non-Muslim foreigners. A swift withdrawal of Coalition forces from the front line would be a very painful test for the Afghan military, though they would be free to choose their battles. But ultimately, it would be a very healthy thing for Afghan politics, and Afghan society.
Gerard Russell is a research fellow on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Harvard Kennedy School and lived in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.