As President Obama prepares to give the nation a status update on the war in Afghanistan Thursday, some in Washington are calling on him to “own” the conflict in a way they say he has not, and to articulate a clearer long-term commitment to the region than he has so far.
A new report on Afghanistan says that the U.S. public should prepare to have roughly 30,000 troops there for years to come – conducting “a prolonged low level of unconventional war” – in large part because the terrorist threat from the region is not going away, probably for decades.
“It’s time to recognize that the war in Afghanistan will not end in July 2011, and that the United States and its allies need a new strategy,” says the report from the Center for a New American Security.
CNAS is an influential think tank founded in 2007 by Michelle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, who are now top government officials in the Obama administration at the Pentagon and the State Department, respectively.
Obama, the report said, has yet to articulate an “‘end game’ in Afghanistan – what the enduring U.S. presence and commitment would look like, or if there would be one at all.”
The report was authored by retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2003, and Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and civilian adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded the mission from June 2009 to June 2010.
In fact, President Obama has already in recent weeks moved the deadline for the removal of U.S. troops from July 2011 to December 2014. But Barno and Exum argued that the perception remains in the region that the U.S. is just biding its time until it abandons Afghanistan.
The message received by Afghans at all levels of society from Obama’s December 2009 speech at West Point – where he first announced both a 30,000 troop increase and the July 2011 withdrawal date – was simple, the report said: “The Americans are leaving.”
“The U.S. has to dispel that uncertainty. We have to a commit to a long term strategy and a long term military deployment: not a large one but a sustainable one in Afghanistan,” Barno said. “Today if you’re a Pakistani national security adviser, or you’re an Afghan adviser to President Karzai, you’re operating under the assumption that the U.S. is leaving, and that’s it’s only a matter of time. We have to dispel that notion.”
Their report is clear-eyed both about the rapidly declining level of support among Americans for the war, as well as the dwindling amount of treasure available to fund such expensive military operations, because of the nation’s deficit and debt troubles.
“By 2018, the baseline U.S. defense budget of about $550 billion will be matched by annual interest payments on [the national] debt, which will only grow thereafter,” they note.
But they argue that the impact of a destabilizing exit from Afghanistan is a grave enough threat to U.S. national security to merit a continued investment, albeit a smaller one. There would be a greater ability for terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda to plan attacks on the U.S., and an increasing risk of Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry falling into the hands of rogue actors if the government there falls.
Barno and Exum’s report states that they are offering “a responsible alternative to an exit strategy that ends the U.S. presence by precipitately turning the war over to the Afghans and … once again abandoning Central Asia as the United States tried in the 1990’s, to devastating effect.”