A Reaction to the President's Afghanistan Announcement

Hey guys, did you all hear? We're getting out of Afghanistan! Yes, finally, after nearly ten years, over 1,500 American lives, countless Afghan (and Pakistani) lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars, the President says we're pulling our forces out and the war is going to end! Hold on, I have the quote right here:

… starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point.

Wait a second—what did he say? Only 10,000 troops? But, does he know that we have over 100,000 in Afghanistan? And that there are less than 100 al Qaeda left in the country?

Let's do the math: 10,000 out by the end of this year leaves us with over 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. Another 23,000 by summer 2012 brings us down to roughly 68,000. There were about 34,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan when Obama took office. So, one year from now, the President's proposed drawdown will leave us with double the amount of U.S. troops in Afghanistan than were there when he got involved in this whole mess. Is this sounding less like a withdrawal plan and more like a bait and switch to anyone else?

And then the remaining 68,000 American forces … wait, what is the plan for the rest?

After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.

“Our mission will change from combat to support.” “By 2014, this process of transition will be complete.” Putting these together, we get that, by 2014, the mission in Afghanistan will be a “support” mission instead of a “combat” mission. “Support” mission sounds reassuring. But, curious me, I want to know a tad more. How many of the troops will be removed at this “steady pace”? How many will be required to stay as part of this “support” mission?

Well, let's look at the best example we have: Iraq. The combat mission in Iraq ended in August 2010, and the mission now is one of “support”. So, we must not have that many troops there, right?

Not so fast. In September 2010, U.S. forces in Iraq were reduced to just under 50,000. A year later, there are still nearly 50,000 troops in the country. So, if we leave a proportionate number in Afghanistan (using the highest number of troops as denominator in both cases), that would leave a bit over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a “support” mission. Which is just a smidgen under the number of troops that were in Afghanistan when Obama took office, with no plan for removing them. Now that's some sophisticated chicanery!

But, of course, some major news outlets would have us believe otherwise. The LATimes heralded the reduction as “major”, while the NYTimes deemed the President's withdrawal proposal “substantial”, claiming that he is “speeding” the pullout from Afghanistan. How could they get it so wrong?

Well, if you insist on comparing the mass of an ant to that of a water molecule, of course you'll come to the conclusion that the ant is a giant. It's been reported that Petraeus preferred an initial drawdown of 5,000 troops with another 5,000 out by next summer. Now, if Obama had announced anything less than 10,000, the show would have been revealed for the farce it was. Because, really, if Obama had gotten up in front of the nation and proclaimed that his long anticipated troop drawdown would amount to a four-digit number, even the cameraman would have been obliged to laugh. The five-digit number gives the proposal an air of robustness—and the fact that Obama chose the smallest five-digit number should clue us in that this was merely about airs.

And let's not forget that uniformed U.S. forces are not the only ones in Afghanistan. There are roughly 40,000 international troops, 110,000 contractors, 290,000 Afghan National Security forces, and 150,000 Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In six months, with our 90,000 U.S. troops, that will be about 680,000 forces against less than 100 al Qaeda. Seems a bit overkill.

Something isn't right here. Oh, yes, it's that the objective of U.S. policy in Afghanistan isn't just to dismantle al Qaeda in Afghanistan, it's to … wait, what is it again?

The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies.

Right. The funny thing about slogans is that they often miss out on much of the substance. On your reckoning, Mr. President, al Qaeda's affiliates include the Taliban, right? Or, at least, elements of the Taliban. Or, well, in any case, if they become too powerful, the first thing they'll do is turn back on that giant neon sign on the Af-Pak border that proclaims “Welcome, al Qaeda!”

Also, excuse me for asking, but how exactly do we keep Afghanistan from being a safe haven for these groups?

We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures –- one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.

Well, that's informative. “Build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures.” What kind of partnership is this? Does it require leaving a substantial “support” force in Afghanistan? And is it just me, or are others hearing “nation-building” echoing throughout this segment? Oh, Mr. President, I thought we had ridden you of this nation-building nonsense.

Also note that Obama said the goal is to ensure “no safe haven” for al Qaeda, not “no safe haven in Afghanistan.”

Of course, our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region. We'll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments.

Of course: Pakistan! Because the authorization for the use of force includes Pakistan. Oh, wait, it doesn't.

As Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corporation, told the LATimes, "I don't think 10,000 is going to have a meaningful impact on the strategy." New speech, same strategy—a strategy that's been defeated by both argument and experience so many times that everyone is just about sick of bringing it up. The issue has been so overworked even Congress has caught on. A few weeks before the President made his announcement, 27 U.S. Senators signed a letter addressed to Obama calling for “a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizable and sustained reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, beginning in July 2011.” They go on to say,

Mr. President, according to our own intelligence officials, al Qaeda no longer has a large presence in Afghanistan, and, as the strike against bin Laden demonstrated, we have the capacity to confront our terrorist enemies with a dramatically smaller footprint. The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits. It is time for the United States to shift course in Afghanistan.

The only way to end the conflict in Afghanistan is by a political settlement, one that reconciles all Afghan groups, including the Taliban. Obama did recognize the importance of a political settlement in his speech. But a substantive commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan—and, yes, a shift in strategy—is necessary for these talks to be successful. Unfortunately, the drawdown outlined by President Obama just might not be enough.

And the war continues …

At long last! Glad to hear our boys lives won't be at risk for nothing for much longer

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