President Obama’s decision to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan seems to have ignored a key factor that may mess up his plans.
I refer to the way in which Afghans, Pakistanis, our NATO allies — and indeed Americans — will perceive the president’s decision. In Afghanistan, shifting perceptions can be as important as the numbers of diplomats or troops.
The president claimed the faster drawdown was the result of U.S. successes: in killing Osama bin Laden, knocking out many other al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, and pushing back the Taliban in the Afghan south.
But — for reasons I’ll detail — many players in the Afghan drama will believe the decision was propelled by political weakness. That perception could make it harder — and much more dangerous — to reduce troop levels during the coming three years.
Why so? The U.S. troop “surge” 18 months ago was rooted as much in psychology as in military needs. The goal was to reverse the Taliban’s momentum. That meant changing the widespread perception — among ordinary Afghans as well as militants — that the Taliban was inevitably destined to win.
The U.S. troop “surge” was also supposed to buy time to train Afghan security forces to protect their own country before the scheduled NATO departure date in 2014. And it was aimed at convincing some Taliban leaders that it was smarter to negotiate a role in governing the country than to fight on.
To some extent the momentum had indeed shifted. The Afghan Taliban had been pushed back from southern Afghanistan. On a recent trip to the Arghandab district of Kandahar, the district governor, Haji Shah Mohammed Ahmadi, told me that “seven or eight months ago everyone knew the Taliban were everywhere here. Now it has improved a lot.”
This shift had produced other positive results. The perception that the Taliban weren’t invincible had bolstered recruitment for Afghan security forces. Leadership training for the Afghan army was accelerating, although there was still a distance to go before Afghan forces could operate alone.
The shifting mood also meant more villages were willing to set up local police forces to keep jihadis out (or persuade them to join up). And Afghan Taliban were hurting enough for some factions to contemplate political negotiations.
But Obama’s decision to front-load the pullback of U.S. troops may toss those crucial psychological gains away.
No matter what the White House says, the president’s plan to pull all 33,000 “surge” troops by summer 2012 will be seen as politically driven. It makes no sense, otherwise, to bring them home in the middle of the 2012 fighting season. This will resurrect the image in Afghanistan and Pakistan of a United States that is hurrying to leave, no matter the consequences.
As one Pakistani journalist wrote me: “This will strengthen the belief in jihadi and pro-jihadi circles here not to lose heart. Such impressions will lead to those among the jihadis who may have been thinking of giving up weapons to wait.”
If Afghans think we are rushing home, villagers are more likely to give in to Taliban pressure. In eastern Afghanistan, virulent Pakistani jihadi groups, linked to al-Qaida and pledged to attack the West, have already been setting up new havens. (The faster pullback will scotch U.S. military plans to move troops from the south to the east.)
And why should the Taliban be interested in negotiations if the military pressure is decreasing, giving militants a psychological boost? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said talks with the Afghan Taliban are “necessary,” but the Taliban are now likely to make tougher demands.
The shifting psychological climate will no doubt also affect our most difficult ally, Pakistan. The Pakistanis have been trying to decide whether to facilitate talks between the United States and their onetime Taliban allies; they may now want to hold on to their Taliban card if the militants seem likely to retake power in Kabul.
Clearly the perception that America is eager to quit has already affected our NATO allies. Within hours of Obama’s speech, France announced it would begin to phase out its 4,000 soldiers. British officials expressed unease about the U.S. plan.
But the group whose psychology may be affected most dramatically is here at home. Obama gave such an overly rosy portrait of the situation in Afghanistan that Americans may demand the troops be brought home even faster.
What the president should have explained is that much remains to be done before 2014 to cement the past year’s gains and ensure Afghanistan doesn’t relapse into a jihadi haven. Instead — pushed by Republicans and Democrats alike — he gave a psychological lift to Afghan militants who were hurting.
In the Afghan war of psychology, our side just took a hit.