June 13, 2011

Obama, Gates Battle Over Afghanistan's Withdrawal

The next major review of the Afghanistan War is progressing similar to the Obama administration's first. Under intense pressure from the right and left (and the Taliban), the White House needed extra time to find the middle ground between no surge at all and 60,000 troops. Rumors of 30,000 circulated for months before confirmation in December 2009, much to President Barack Obama’s personal vexation.

Even the middle road was considered too expensive politically, and his allies justifiably believed that the Pentagon publicly handcuffed them as the war spiraled out of control.

With an unspecified number of weeks still remaining before Obama’s next address, planned to center around a withdrawal time-frame to 2014, voracious rumors have attempted to peg the concrete details of July’s drawdown. The administration has kept quiet for 18 months to keep its options open, feeding the information vacuum just as 2009’s lengthy review did. However the White House wants to capitalize on Osama bin Laden’s death and is pushing for a big deduction in time for the 2012 campaign season.

Estimates range from the Pentagon’s ideal zero to the White House’s 10,000.

Now Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has leaked the latest option - a plan designed to politically shock and awe. Drawing on his connections, the current president emeritus of CFR wrote for The Daily Beast, “By July 15, President Obama will unveil a plan to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by upward of 30,000, but to withdraw them slowly under military guidance over 12 to 18 months, according to administration officials.”

“In sum,” says Gelb, “the quick exiters get the big 30,000 or so number, and the die-harders get one last year-plus at near full strength to weaken the Taliban.”

Without knowing how Gelb extracted this information, the clique headed by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden appears to have preempted the Pentagon’s hard-line. After suffering repeated leaks in the past, the White House is shifting all the pressure on Gates and the Pentagon, daring them to oppose their drawdown while simultaneously raising their bottom line. Obama has drawn heavy criticism for bowing to the Pentagon, and appears determined not to be bullied out of July.

This political gamesmanship also adds clouds the withdrawal process by hedging against it.

30,000 troops theoretically signals the middle ground that Obama feels most comfortable in, a position intended to “satisfy those pushing for a quick exit and the diehards determined to stay the course.” This may not be the case though; the Obama administration also loves its rhetorical deception. While the immediate drawdown after July remains to be decided in the coming weeks, no more than 10,000 are certain to redeploy. 3,000-5,000 troops, many of them non-combat units, represent the plausible ceiling given stiff Pentagon resistance. Perhaps no combat troops will leave for the next three to six months.

30,000 is a false sticker price. The withdrawal can start at any time and won’t end until 2013, leaving 70,000 troops in the country until January 2015.

Gimmicks aside, the administration’s drawdown is prepared to sustain the war in Afghanistan. Negotiations with the Taliban cannot fully progress so long as U.S. forces show no intention of leaving. The White House’s time-line could further expand if a reduction in U.S. and NATO troops allows the Taliban to regain lost territory. Although al-Qaeda may have given up Afghanistan for greener pastures around the world, the Taliban remain a potent fighting force despite a relentless blitzkrieg from U.S. Special Forces. Judging by Iraq’s security forces, the Afghan national army and police force won’t be able to operate independently for at least a decade. Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains powerless to purify his corrupt regime and Pakistan’s invasion of North Waziristan is already sliding off-track.

Unlike coalition troops which are gone for good, the Taliban can put more troops back into the battlefield.

This outcome assumes a full 30,000 U.S. troops will withdraw by 2013. The Pentagon will fight hard for a cap, reported at 15,000. Unwilling to challenge the White House openly, Gates will seek a compromise that minimizes the 30,000 figure and back-loads the withdrawal. As for the White House’s insistence that all U.S. troops will exit after 2014, the Pentagon fully expects and will probably receive a substantial force. Gates’s legacy is staked to Afghanistan and he won’t resign (on June 30th) without a fight. He appears to realize that Iraq’s precipitous fall in violence is further away than Obama’s time-frame allows.

Regardless of how many troops the White House withdraws in 2011, 2012 is unlikely to see a reduction in Afghan bloodshed. The last 18 months have created some progress after years of counter-productively. However we aren’t expecting any miracles during the next 18.

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