The exit strategy from Afghanistan increasingly looks like: exit, minus strategy. General Allen has been constantly ratcheting down the number of U.S. troops needed to remain after 2014 to carry out counterterror missions and continue training Afghan forces -- from 20,000 to 15,000 to three options at 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops. But that still may be too much: Earlier this week, Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, said that the president may leave no troops behind at all. That was a message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's now in Washington trying to make case for a larger residual U.S. presence, but also to the Pentagon. General Allen is not David Petraeus. (David Petraeus is no longer David Petraeus, for that matter.) And Obama, who must think about many things which do not enter into his generals' ken, like public opinion and the budget deficit, will make up his own mind. He is saying, in effect, that he can live with failure.
Is that a bad thing? In a Washington Post op-ed last November, Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, the gung-ho generals of the Institute for the Study of War, predicted that, absent a remaining force of 40,000 troops, the United States will be unable to engage in serious counterterror operations, affect the Afghan political process as the country approaches a crucial election in 2014, or engage in meaningful nation-building.
That may be hyperbolic, but it certainly defines what's at stake. It is, for example, extremely unlikely that Afghan forces will be able to stand on their own once U.S. troops leave. Even the Pentagon's extremely rosy December 2012 progress report concedes that only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is ready to fight on its own. And a recent article in the New York Times reports that the people of Marja district in Helmand Province, brought back to bustling life after months of bloody battle by U.S. Marines, have already resigned themselves to the return of the Taliban once American forces pack up.
The Obama who hopes to pivot to Asia, and to nation-building-at-home, just may not care that much anymore. I imagine that the president and his team, now thoroughly cured of the military's can-do spirit of optimism, regard reports of Afghan military readiness with as much skepticism as most of the rest of us do. They would like to keep Afghan whole after 2014, but they are no longer prepared to pay the price that may be required to do so. They are hoping -- but it's just a hope -- that they can close the door on Afghanistan as they already have on Iraq, continuing to provide billions in development assistance, budgetary support, and military training while the Afghans sort out their security and political problems on their own. Drone warfare has seriously eroded al Qaeda's ranks in Pakistan, and the war on terror has moved on to Yemen and North Africa. Even the counterterror aspect of the Afghan war has thus lost some of its urgency.
And if the hopes for Afghan self-sufficiency prove baseless, as they very well might? U.S. failure in Vietnam was supposed to bring calamity in its wake -- but it didn't. If Afghanistan really is the Vietnam of our time, then Barack Obama, like Richard Nixon, has decided to cut his losses.