WASHINGTON -- Behind the debate over the speed and scope of the Obama administration's promised troop drawdown from Afghanistan is a complex calculation of how a reduced U.S. military presence would affect prospects for negotiations.
President Obama is due to announce his decision on troop reductions on Wednesday, ahead of his scheduled visit on Thursday to Fort Drum, N.Y., the home of the Army's 10th Mountain Division which has made multiple deployments to Afghanistan.
"He's finalizing his decision. He's reviewing his options," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.
Announcing a big troop reduction -- for example, 10,000 of the 100,000 Americans now serving in Afghanistan -- might send a message to the Taliban to not bother with negotiations. Too small a withdrawal means President Obama could risk losing what remains of the American public's support for a U.S. role in Afghanistan that might have to continue through years of negotiations.
After a decade of war, it's become clear neither side can land a knockout blow on the battlefield, and that some form of negotiated settlement is needed to end the fighting with an outcome that preserves the most important American goals: a stable Afghanistan that can deny sanctuary to violent Islamist groups like al Qaeda and the most radical elements of the Taliban.
A negotiated settlement is also seen as critical in preventing the region from sliding back into the bloody civil war of the 1980s and 1990s that rocked the region and incubated the Taliban and al Qaeda.
A strong and continuing U.S. military presence -- providing security while building Afghanistan's army and police -- would be essential muscle driving the Taliban to talks and keeping them there, diplomatic experts say. It's the heavy weight that would enable American diplomats to tell baulking Taliban negotiators to go stuff it.
"You have to have an alternative to negotiations,'' veteran diplomatic troubleshooter James Dobbins told The Huffington Post. "You need to be able to tell the Taliban that if we get an agreement there's all kinds of benefits for them, but we don't need an agreement." Dobbins negotiated settlements to the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and set up Afghanistan's postwar government in 2002.
The Taliban, said Dobbins, "need to know we can just walk away.''
As Obama makes his decision about the size and timing of a draw-down of American troops, "the insurgents certainly will be watching -- gauging the durability of the American commitment'' in Afghanistan, said Dobbins.
No negotiations are currently underway, But "very preliminary'' contacts and discussions involving American and other diplomats and the Taliban have been held for several weeks, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said over the weekend. Although senior administration officials are wary of taking part in formal negotiations under an international facilitator such as a United Nations envoy, the concept of a negotiated settlement has wide backing. "We have all said all along that a political outcome is the way most of the wars end,'' Gates explained Sunday on CNN.
Or, as retired Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno put it, "We can't rub them out and they [the Taliban] haven't been able to take any cities.'' Barno, a senior advisor at the Center for a New American Strategy, a centrist think tank, commanded U.S. and allied combat troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. "Nobody on 'our' side is talking about victory now,'' Barno observed, adding: "We had it eight years ago, and squandered it.''
Now, managing war-weary domestic public opinion while bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion will require tricky presidential footwork, said Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior expert on negotiations at the Century Foundation in New York. "A precipitous draw-down this year would run the risk of being seen as a sign of intent to depart regardless of success at negotiations,'' said Laurenti, author of a forthcoming book on Afghanistan. "At least through this year's fighting season, you want to maintain as close to a complete military capability as possible.''
As the two sides navigate warily toward negotiations, the opinions of the elite in Afghanistan matter as much as American domestic opinion, according to a survey of 122 Afghan political, military and economic leaders. "Afghans across different groups see the United States as a key party to the conflict whose direct participation in a peace process is crucial to its success,'' said Hamish Nixon, an Afghan expert whose report was published by the U.S. Institute of Peace. If senior Afghans are "to take the prospect of a negotiated settlement seriously,'' he wrote, "there is a need for clearer U.S. policy and signalling'' of intent, inherent in Obama's decision on a troop draw-down.
Pressure on the White House for a rapid drawdown is growing, from both the political right and the left. "You could cut the force in half and there'd still be a lot of troops there,'' said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. "That would send a signal that we're not there forever.''
But with the U.S. and NATO already committed to withdrawing most combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, it would make sense to others to draw down about one-quarter of U.S. forces each year anyway, providing what Barno calls "a smooth glide path'' over the next three years.
Barno and others recommend that Obama announce a troop reduction now -- but delay implementing it until late fall, when the fighting season tapers off and support troops can be safely withdrawn. "That would signal that the United States is not abandoning the field abruptly,'' he said, and would still keep a sizable force in the field during any negotiations.
If negotiations do get underway, modest U.S. and allied troop reductions could be made even while retaining what Laurenti calls "a real hammer to incentivize the Taliban'' for serious negotiations: the armed drone strikes that have decimated al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan. The threat of deadly strikes, he said "gives you a means for being able to maintain high lethality on their leaders even with a much reduced presence'' of combat troops on the ground.