Deadline works against Afghanistan exit

July 27, 2010


President Obama is caught on the horns of an Afghan deadline dilemma.

In December at West Point, the president pledged that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

He never spelled out the pace at which they’d leave, and he talked of a “responsible transition.” But Afghans took him to mean we were heading for the exits.

This made the Taliban bolder and less likely to agree to a negotiated settlement. In other words, setting the 7/11 deadline made it less likely that it could be met. “The timeline is cutting our own throats,” said David Kilcullen, author of the new book “Counterinsurgency” and an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus on strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The administration finally recognized this trap and is now backpedaling on the deadline. Last year, Vice President Biden said “a whole lot of people” would be “moving out” of Afghanistan in July 2011, but last week he told ABC-TV the number could be “as few as a couple thousand troops.” Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Wednesday that the timing and size of the withdrawal had not been decided.

Yet domestic pressures are mounting: 153 House Democrats voted for a clearer timetable, and even some Republicans are getting war jitters. Meantime, U.S., European and other foreign leaders set a new deadline last week in Kabul, endorsing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan for his forces to take responsibility for security by 2014. Of course, no one believes the Afghan army and police will be able to protect their country on their own by 2014 (let alone 2011), unless the fighting diminishes before then.

So Obama is caught in the deadline cross fire. He doesn’t want to get trapped in an endless war. But the best hope of withdrawing responsibly requires U.S. troops to shift the momentum, convincing the Taliban they cannot win and must break with al-Qaida. At that point, the Afghan government could negotiate from a stronger position and bring some Taliban factions into the government. But the 2011 deadline has had the opposite effect.

Meanwhile, Karzai, believing the Americans are leaving, is frantically pursuing peace talks with top Taliban who show no interest in compromising. This has spurred non-Pashtun ethnic groups to start rearming to prevent the Pashtun Taliban from making a comeback. “People are clearing the decks for renewed civil war,” Kilcullen said.

Those who’ve pushed for the 2011 deadline contend there’s no way to shift momentum because there’s no viable Afghan partner. They rightly note that the Karzai government’s corruption has pushed the Afghan people toward the insurgents, even though they are highly unpopular.

Some 7/11 advocates seek a quick U.S. withdrawal. Bad idea. Not only would it precipitate civil and regional war, but it would also galvanize jihadis worldwide as al-Qaida proclaimed victory over the leading superpower. It would also further destabilize neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country already threatened by radical Islamists within.

Others call for the United States to return to a “light footprint,” meaning troop cuts and withdrawal to bases in Kabul and Kandahar, while U.S. Special Forces and airpower continue fighting. This approach failed after our initial victory over the Taliban, and it’s hard to see how it could work now. If most of the country were left to the Taliban, tribal leaders would stop providing intelligence, supply routes would be cut, and U.S. enclaves would be vulnerable. Bombing mobile insurgents in populated areas would not solve the problems.

[Everyone knows the United States cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. However, the unexpected change of U.S. command in Afghanistan and the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus provide one last chance to do counterinsurgency right.

Obama’s troop “surge” will come fully online only by late August. Petraeus has already squeezed Karzai into endorsing a program for reintegrating low- and mid-level Taliban into society and a plan to train village self-defense forces.

Can the general persuade local Afghans to stand up against the Taliban? Maybe. Can he persuade Karzai to devolve more powers — and channel more international aid funds — to local officials? Possibly.

And can he persuade Karzai to clean up his act, and that of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, whose corruption has undercut the long-awaited offensive in Kandahar? Perhaps. “Petraeus’ main activity in Iraq,” said Kilcullen, “was to meet with (President Nouri al) Maliki every night, coercing, persuading, until he did the right thing.” No doubt he will try the same with Karzai.

Given the lack of good alternatives, the least bad is to stop talking about deadlines and give the general a fair shot.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. trubin@phillynews.com


Paul R Getto 7 years, 10 months ago

"Everyone knows the United States cannot remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. However, the unexpected change of U.S. command in Afghanistan and the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus provide one last chance to do counterinsurgency right." === Good luck with that. Perhaps we had a good reason to be there when we allegedly cornered Osama, but W wimped out because we were still in the thrall of the "Viet Nam syndrome." It appears, a few thousand dead after that moment in time, we have gotten over that. The leaked documents tend to confirm what most know and few will admit...we will be there for years with no benefit except to the weapons industry. Get out now; build schools faster than they can burn them; buy the opium at the border and dump it so it doesn't go to market. All this is much cheaper than the foolish nation building we now pursue.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

"but W wimped out because we were still in the thrall of the "Viet Nam syndrome.""

No, it just wasn't the war that he and the other neocons had been dreaming about for the previous dozen years. His eyes were on another prize, Iraq.

jafs 7 years, 10 months ago

If we had supported the Afghan people by helping them rebuild their country after they defeated the Soviets, it's very likely that the Taliban and anti-American factions wouldn't have become a threat at all.

We had plenty of money for them while they were fighting the Soviets and dying, but little to none once that ended.

I don't understand that at all.

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