Obama’s Afghanistan troop withdrawal makes sense

Adam Lowther Contributor
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In the weeks since President Obama went before the White House press corps to announce his plan for troop reductions in Afghanistan, criticism and support for his approach have fallen along political lines. This is not surprising in a town where decisions are often made for political expediency rather than as a result of careful strategic planning.

After more than 12 months of a “surge” that saw an additional 30,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan, there is little reason to believe that maintaining a force of 100,000 American troops will result in substantial progress in the nation’s decade-old quest to turn Afghanistan into a safe, stable, free-market democracy. Thus, the president chose to begin the process of bringing American troops home.

However, questions concerning the president’s decision are justified.

With the Taliban still a potent adversary, the “can do” military is reluctant to support a withdrawal of 10,000 troops that is set to begin in little more than a week — with an additional 23,000 troops coming home by September 2012. After investing a decade of blood and sweat into defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda, many senior military leaders are reluctant to leave the job unfinished.

Some Republicans are critical of the president’s decision because they too are reluctant to support a withdrawal absent defeat of the Taliban and a stable Afghan democracy. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said of the decision, “This is not the ‘modest’ withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated.”

On the other side of the aisle, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was critical of President Obama’s decision, saying, “It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out.”

Perhaps the president’s decision is best described as a middle ground — too much for some Republicans and too little for some Democrats.

This discussion over how many troops should be withdrawn and on what timetable fundamentally misses two important questions: Does the U.S. continue to have vital interests in Afghanistan? And if so, how are U.S. interests best defended in the region?

There is no simple answer to these questions. However, continuing to deploy 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan makes little sense.

If decision-makers are determined to defend major and peripheral interests in Afghanistan, the White House, the Department of Defense and Congress must come to grips with three important realities.

First, Operation Enduring Freedom was most successful in the fall and winter of 2001-2002, when airpower and special operations were combined with local forces to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban from power. Expanding the mission to include the democratization and modernization of Afghanistan is an example of American altruism and optimism that underestimates the resiliency of the Afghan people, who have — in turn — resisted the invasion of Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Brits, Russians and Americans.

Second, it is doubtful that the United States will completely eliminate the Taliban or al Qaeda any time in the near future. Focusing American efforts on constraining their effectiveness outside Afghanistan is a far better approach to managing the threat that al Qaeda and other exporters of violent Islamic fundamentalism pose to the United States.

By virtue of concentrating in Afghanistan, al Qaeda chose the most backward and remote place on Earth to call home. This was to our advantage. Driving al Qaeda from the remote mountain locales of Afghanistan into densely populated cities makes it more difficult to keep a watchful eye on the group’s activities.

Third, reducing troop levels in Afghanistan will not provide sufficient cost savings to effectively address current budget deficits. In 2011, President Obama requested $172 billion for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. By the end of May, the budget deficit was already approaching $1 trillion for FY 2011. And as American troops depart Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, airpower will be called on to prevent al Qaeda and the Taliban from reconstituting the very training camps that equipped thousands of jihadists with the necessary skills to attack the United States in 2001 and after. That airpower will not come without a cost — although it is likely to prove more cost-effective than maintaining a large troop presence. Since any cost savings from troop reductions in Afghanistan will only have a marginal impact on the nation’s fiscal woes, strategy and national interests, not a weak economy, should drive our actions.

The president’s effort to reshape American strategy in Afghanistan deserves support. Reducing the number of boots on the ground in Afghanistan will allow the military to more effectively defend the nation’s interests there.

Dr. Adam Lowther is the author of Americans and Asymmetric Conflict: Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan. He served in the United States Navy and Naval Reserve for much of the 1990s and was called to active duty in the weeks following 9/11.