- 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
"We always suspected you would abandon us again. Now your president has said it," the deeply lined leader of a key Mangal subtribe scolded me across a small wooden table set with a bowl of Afghan raisins and nuts. To his left, dozens of other Afghans nodded in agreement. We were sitting in the small office of a women's center on the outskirts of Khost city that was apparently funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and abandoned years ago.
I had been working closely with him for most of the year to garner his support along with his 500 arbakai, or tribal militia, during my most recent tour in Afghanistan. This meeting was supposed to be the final step toward winning over this historically pro-government subtribe.
He and his tribal council were now withdrawing their support completely. It was only week after U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 speech at West Point, where he announced the surge of U.S. forces but undercut the policy with the simultaneous announcement that he would begin their withdrawal by July 2011.
"We appreciate all that you have done for us -- wells, roads, schools," the elder continued. "But until you are prepared to commit your children to stand side by side with our children, we cannot work with you."
"The Haqqanis and their Arab friends will build their training camps on our graves when you leave us," he concluded before walking away.
The president's speech on Wednesday, June 22, outlining his strategy to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces is evidence that American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more about U.S. domestic pressures than it is about making any sort of long-term commitment to stabilize the region so that terrorist sanctuaries can no longer be used to attack the West.
The debate within the administration and among Washington's pundits over numbers of troops and timelines misses the point. According to former colleagues still at senior levels of the military commands and at the Pentagon, the differences between the most extreme options offered to the president amounted to only a few thousand troops and several months on the timeline.
The larger strategic issue is the broader signal Obama has sent to U.S. allies and the region: America is leaving. This signal, which was received loud and clear by those Afghan elders in 2009 and reinforced Wednesday night, presents four fundamental problems.
First, the entire region has begun to maneuver for a post-American Afghanistan and mostly in ways that run counter to U.S. interests. What this administration doesn't fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren't listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday's announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.
Second, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently addressed very bluntly, the United States cannot let the withdrawal of a few thousand U.S. troops be the green light for the Europeans to run for the exits. Unfortunately, despite the attacks on Madrid, London, and Denmark, we know that will likely be the case. At least the planned drawdown of U.S. civilian capacity is something we can control. During my most recent visit to Kandahar, one senior U.S. military commander described USAID as a source of instability rather than stability due to its continued lack of a meaningful presence in the provinces and therefore its inability to fulfill its promises to Afghans.
Declining troop numbers will also affect the ability of U.S. government civilians -- most of whom operate under military protection as they provide aid and guidance on agriculture, governance, and the rule of law -- to go out in the field. From what my former colleagues have told me, the civilian agencies have their own withdrawal schedule, with plans to pull back their already meager presence from forward bases.
Third, every Afghan I've spoken to recently, from ministers to my former interpreters, is increasingly concerned about the prospect of civil war. My Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara friends believe the United States is cutting a deal with Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban at their expense. A multitude of notable Tajik leaders -- the late Deputy Interior Minister Daoud Daoud, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, former Minister for Reconstruction Ehsan Zia, former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, and others -- are increasingly spending time in their home turf reconstituting old alliances and networks. The Northern Alliance is getting the band back together and that includes outreach to its old allies in Iran, Russia, and India -- all of whom are increasingly viewed as more reliable than the United States. The U.S. policy of withdrawal based on timelines rather than conditions -- not to mention excluding minorities from talks with the Taliban -- are only exacerbating the situation.
Finally, Obama's policy is based on the assumption that al Qaeda is defeated and cannot reconstitute itself in the seams of an increasingly unstable Pakistan, a diminished U.S. and coalition presence, ethnic tension, and Afghan army and police forces that are years away from independent operations. This is a very dangerous assumption. Al Qaeda can and will restore itself as the United States invariably loses its hard-fought gains with the Afghan people due to diminished resources and will. A counterterrorism strategy must be nested within a counterinsurgency strategy, as the populace won't risk their necks to work with the coalition unless they feel they will be protected. It takes a network to defeat a network.
Success in Afghanistan and the region is going to be tough and expensive. Most importantly, it will take time. Nearly every commander and civilian who has served there, including me, cites the progress that has been made in the last 10 years, but caveats his or her response with the need for more time. Although the costs are great, they will be far greater if the United States leaves too soon. The people of the region will never trust America again, and the cost of re-engagement if our assumptions are wrong will be nearly insurmountable.
Michael Waltz is a former South Asia advisor to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a Special Forces officer (reserve component) with multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is now vice president of Metis Solutions, a strategic international consulting firm.