In the Arena

The Coming Afghan Drawdown

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Getty / Paula Bronstein

My esteemed colleague Mark Thompson and the New York Times are both reporting this morning on the ongoing debate about how fast to leave Afghanistan–although I don’t think anyone is talking about actually…leaving, at least not totally and completely. As I wrote in January, the debate within the Obama Administration is about fighting seasons.

I’d be very surprised if anything more than a token force (3-5000 troops) is leaving anytime soon. A more substantial withdrawal will begin at the end of the current fighting season (a fighting season is defined here as the period from the end of the opium harvest in April till the beginning of the marijuana harvest in late November). The question is, how substantial? Vice President Joe Biden and some of the National Security Staff would like to see all combat troops pulled out in 2012, leaving behind a strategic force of 15-25,000, based at Bagram and Kandahar airfields, to continue training the Afghan National Army and police, and to continue the special operations work that’s been so successful.

Team B–that would be outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus–would like to see most troops remain for another full fighting season in 2012, then begin a gradual drawdown in 2013 till the end date of 2014. Secretary of State Clinton was on this team in the last Afghan strategy go-round; the question is whether she has changed her mind in light of recent developments. Incoming Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also has a vote here, but his position is not yet known. And the ultimate vote is with the President, who has sided with Team B, with modications, in the past.

But I suspect that recent events have tilted the playing field toward Team A. There’s the death of Osama bin Laden, of course; and the cache of documents seized in the operation that might lead to the capture of other al-Qaeda leaders (some of whom may decide to hie toward the newly anarchic failed state of Yemen, or to Somalia, just across the Red Sea). But there’s also the success of the U.S. military efforts during the last fighting season, clearly the Taliban out of their natural heartland in Kandahar and much of Helmand provinces. That success means that reconciliation talks with the Taliban are more plausible now. Negotiations to begin negotiations have already started. And, finally, there is the ongoing domestic economic crisis–and the ever-strengthening argument that the President’s time and coin should be spent at home.

The main fight remaining is in Regional Command-East, against the Haqqani branch of the Taliban, which is funded and harbored by our lovely friends, the Pakistanis. That will be the center of attention this summer and fall (although work–the holding and building stages–will continue in areas of Kandahar and Helmand that were cleared last year). A strong argument can be made that neutralizing the Haqqanis will be handled in a renewed diplomatic process, part of quadrilateral peace talks among NATO, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban. Certainly, the Pakistanis should be getting the message that continued congressional support for military and economic aid will hinge on their willingness to stop playing these lethal games.

In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama announced a major withdrawal process that will begin with the departure of a few troops this summer (and the transition of mostly peaceful cities like Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif to Afghan government control), then begin in earnest by the end of the year, with forces down to about 50,000 a year from now and the 25,000 stabilization force by the end of 2012. The Afghan National Army ain’t the 101st Airborne, but it is strong enough, with continuing US support, to prevent a Taliban takeover of the country. That, plus the continuing covert campaign by drones and special operators, should be more than enough to protect US national interests in one of the world’s most remote places.