In the Arena

Afghanistan Speech Preview

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Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

Newly trained soldiers of Afghan army participate in a send-off ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, June 8, 2011.

It now seems likely that President Obama will take a modest course on withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the consensus guess that he’ll withdraw 30,000 troops by the end of the 2012 fighting season. I had hoped for a larger draw down next year, but recent, depressing events in Pakistan have changed the equation. Some thoughts:

1. The scope of the debate within the administration has been pretty narrow. Even “doves” like Joe Biden agree that a long-term US troop presence, in the 15-25,000 range, will be necessary to train the Afghan National Army and continue special operations in the Pakistan border areas. The real issue has been how many troops to bring home in 2012–should we give the military one or two more fighting seasons at full-strength? (As I’ve noted before, the Afghan fighting begins after the opium crop has been harvested in early spring and ends when the marijuana crop is harvested in November.)

(PHOTOS: A Blackhawk’s View of Afghanistan)

2. This will be portrayed as the return of the 30,000 “surge” troops deployed last year, but that’s not quite accurate. The troops being withdrawn, especially those coming home this year, will be mostly support personnel, the engineers and construction workers who built the facilities to house the amped up US presence in Afghanistan. The military commanders want to keep as many combat units as possible–i.e. nearly all of them–for this year’s fighting season.

3. It’s amazing how little this is about Hamid Karzai’s government. As Les Gelb writes today, departing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry pretty much summed up the US government attitude toward Karzai without mentioning the Afghan’s name in an address over the weekend:

 “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost–in terms of lives and treasure–hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people… they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.” Then, he warned: “At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption… especially at a time our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home.”

3. The slow pace of withdrawal–I was hoping that nearly all combat units would be out by the end of next year–has everything to do with recent events in Pakistan. There has been a sharp turn toward anti-American Islamist militancy since the Osama Bin Laden raid. General Ashfaq Kayani–the last of the Pakistani Army’s American-trained and American-sympathizing leaders–is on the ropes and is likely to replace in a top-down military coup in the coming months by a more Islamist successor (although perhaps not an outright Islamic extremist). This means that Pakistan will not only continue to support the Afghan Taliban, but will probably increase that support.

The slower departure sends a message to the Pakistanis–that we’re not going to do what we did last time and bug out precipitously, leaving Afghanistan as a playing field in their Great Game against the Indians. It also gives the Afghan National Army more time to establish itself as a convincing anti-Taliban force. This is not a far-fetched proposition, by the way: the ANA is 90% non-Pashtun, a nearly-direct descendent of the old Northern Alliance that lost the civil war to the Taliban in the 1990s. (The various Taliban factions are almost entirely Pashtun.) My guess is that the ANA will be more than willing to continue that civil war after we go, and more than able to keep the country now that it has US equipment, training and logistical support (as opposed to the spotty Indian, Iranian and Russian support it received in the past).

(PHOTOS: The Taliban’s War in Pakistan)

If the Pakistanis are convinced of that–convinced that their Taliban can not win–they may be more willing to allow the Taliban to make some sort of a deal with the Karzai government. Remarkably–and outrageously–they have been blocking such a deal so far.

So make no mistake: this decision has more to do with the new, dangerous turn in Pakistan than it does with events in Afghanistan. I’ll have more on this in my print column this week.

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