Later today, President Obama is going to address the nation on the subject of the Afghanistan war. Specifically, he's going to make good on a promise made a year-and-a-half ago: to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan next month. The big question everyone's been speculating about in the run-up to this announcement has been how big a reduction the president will announce.
A month-and-a-half ago, I laid out the options open to the president to answer the "How many troops to withdraw?" question. Back then, I put it:
Now that Bin Laden is dead, Obama has a wider range of options to choose from, in terms of how fast he's going to get our troops home. Bin Laden's death meant (among other things) that Obama has the political leeway to withdraw troops much faster now. The American public is tired of this war (when they even notice we're still fighting it), and the politicians have slowly come to realize this fact. Both Democratic and Republican support for the war is fading in Congress, which (again) makes Obama's task that much easier.
Obama will likely lay out only the first phase of his withdrawal plans in a few months, though. He'll announce the number of troops that will be coming home over the course of six months (or possibly as long as a year), and then he'll reassess the situation. This is in keeping with the way he's run America's wars so far, so he'll likely continue the same pattern. No matter what he announces, his critics will say he's either going too slow or too fast, but his choices fall roughly into three categories of troop withdrawal numbers: small, medium, and large.
I then went on to define "small" as 5,000-10,000 troops pulled out before the end of this year, "medium" as 10,000-25,000, and "large" as over 25,000 troops withdrawn. I further concluded that "medium" was the likely route Obama would take, writing:
The numbers are big enough that it cannot be called a "token" withdrawal, but not so large as to give the image of just abandoning the country to its fate. This would still leave roughly 75,000-90,000 troops in Afghanistan next year, which is still over twice the number Bush ever devoted to the war. Obama will likely (no matter how fast he withdraws initially) review the Afghanistan situation at the end of this year, and could then elect to slow the withdrawal after a fairly large initial pullout, if circumstances on the ground merit it. Obama could also speed up the withdrawal in 2012.
As I stated, Obama's going to open himself up to criticism no matter what plan he announces. Some will say he's pulling out too fast, and some will say he should bring all the troops home immediately. By choosing a moderate -- but still substantial -- number somewhere in the 10,000-25,000 range, Obama can make the case that he's begun a significant withdrawal of troops but also that he's not just bugging out entirely all at once.
Today, I not only stand by what I predicted, I will further narrow this prediction down. Obama, from many accounts (which could be wrong, I hasten to point out), will be using a tactic in his primetime speech to the nation tonight which I would call "muddying the waters." What I mean by this is that the president is going to have a more complicated withdrawal schedule than one might have expected. There will likely be an "initial phase" of withdrawal, lasting roughly from July to the end of the year; there will be a "medium-term phase" which will extend throughout 2012; and then there will be a "final phase" ending in 2014, when the war is slated to wind down entirely.
By laying all of this out, Obama makes it hard for critics to make sweeping statements about his withdrawal plans. Which will be the desired effect by the White House. My guess is that the phrase "in consultation with the generals on the ground" will be heavily relied upon during the president's speech, to give him lots of wiggle room for the medium and long term. The "conditions on the ground" phrase will also be deployed in the president's speech in a similar fashion.
Having said all of that, the leaks appearing in the media so far point to President Obama laying out a plan to draw down his second "surge" into Afghanistan (his first surge was not called a "surge" by the media, and hence will likely be forgotten completely in the commentary after tonight's speech by the mainstream media). Obama announced his second surge of roughly 35,000 troops in December of 2009, at the same time he promised he'd begin withdrawing them in July of 2011. The media leaks so far point to Obama announcing the full schedule to withdraw these troops tonight. But there will be a significant fudge factor in whatever he announces.
For instance, Obama could announce that 15,000 American troops will be coming home by the end of this year, and that the remaining 15,000-20,000 will come home "by December of 2012." This would leave Obama open to the Pentagon keeping roughly 85,000 troops in Afghanistan for almost all of next year. This is also, pointedly, how Obama has been dealing with the withdrawal of troops from Iraq -- set a number and a deadline, and then leave lots of leeway for the Pentagon to meet those hard goals while keeping as many troops as they like "in country" until such deadlines approach.
Of course, the biggest media focus is going to be on the number of troops in the initial withdrawal. This number is not going to be as big as some would like it, and it's also going to be bigger than others would prefer -- no matter what number Obama actually announces. The Pentagon would reportedly like to see only 3,000-5,000 troops withdrawn, at least at first. The public would likely prefer the entire 35,000 troops to come home this year, if polling on the issue is correct. There are factions within the Obama administration who are backing both of these options. Obama, however, is likely to split the difference in one fashion or another.
My educated guess, after listening to all the speculation and leaking, is that Obama will choose between 10,000 and 15,000 troops for the initial withdrawal phase. Anything less than "five figures" is not going to be seen as a credible "substantial" withdrawal. While this number could conceivably be as high as 20,000, I think the president will choose to be more cautious in the first phase of bringing the troops home.
In the middle phase, Obama will likely announce that the rest of the second surge will come home by the end of next year. There are some pushing for shorter schedules to accomplish this (both "in nine months" and "in a year's time" have been discussed), but the seasonal nature of the Afghan war will likely preclude either option. Withdrawing the second wave in either nine months or a full year would be almost the same as pulling them out in the initial phase this year, in terms of the difference it would make on the battlefield. If Obama wants the medium-term troops to fight through next year's "fighting season" in Afghanistan, then the logical schedule to allow them to come home would be 18 months, or a deadline of the end of 2012.
Obama may speak in vague terms about the final phase of withdrawal, but is not likely to go beyond the marker the United States has already laid down -- that all the troops will be out of Afghanistan in 2014. Between now and then, Obama will likely say tonight, we will have to review the situation on the ground before further decisions are made.
So that's my prediction for the numbers Obama will announce tonight: 10,000-15,000 troops home in the first wave (to be accomplished either by the end of the year or within nine months); the remainder of the second surge to be withdrawn by the end of next year; and keeping to the end date of 2014 for the remaining troops (roughly 65,000 of them). What will be most interesting to me tonight is whether the president brings up Libya or Iraq, and whether he will be adjusting his exit strategy for either of our other two wars.
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