Obama’s Puzzling Afghan Policy

June 22nd, 2011

President Obama will announce today the withdrawal of 30,000 troops from Afghanistan, nearly one-third of our current military deployment. This will effectively end the “surge” Obama ordered in 2009.

The military is furious, apparently, because they believe they need the full number of combat troops available to maintain advances made against the Taliban last winter.

This effectively is capitulating the Afghan war. Obama’s policy on Afghanistan is, to put it nicely, puzzling. After 3 months of thinking in 2009, Obama increased our forces in Afghanistan by 30,000—a middle-ground between administration and military officials. That measure was already half-hearted, but rather than see it through, he’s apparently given up on it.

The Afghan war was always going to be almost impossible to win, so it’s easy to say he’s making the right decision now. But if that’s true, and it’s a hard truth that he’s recognized, why did he order the half-surge in 2009 to begin with? If it’s because it’s a truth he only recognizes now, after two years of war, why not announce a full withdrawal? If the reason is because we’re in the middle of negotiations with the Taliban and announcing a withdrawal would undermine our position, doesn’t announcing the withdrawal of nearly one-third of our troops do exactly that?

The only answer that makes any sense is that he’s given up on the war and he thinks announcing the withdrawal of troops will help in the 2012 election. Even then, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; withdrawing one-third of our troops will feel like a half-hearted political measure to independents who want to see our troops come home, and for those independents who want to see us win the Afghan war, it will just anger them even more.

I don’t see any other answer, though. The best end-game in Afghanistan now is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban that allows them into the government but limits the extent to which they can re-implement Shariah law and militants are allowed to train and organize. That’s a terrible outcome, but even that requires us to negotiate from a strong position, and beginning to withdraw our forces while we’re negotiating almost assuredly undercuts our chance.

The Pakistanis, the Afghans and the Taliban all know that we have no will to stay and are leaving. This announcement will confirm it. Our best end game now—and what Obama’s seeking, I’m sure—is saving a little face when the Taliban march through and re-claim Afghanistan. It’s unfair to blame Obama, or any president, for “losing” a war in a region that cannot be tamed, but it’s certainly valid to criticize him for undermining our position for negotiation.