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Washington Smackdown: Petraeus vs. "Substantial Drawdown"

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Gen. David Petraeus spoke today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and is speaking tomorrow before the House Armed Services Committee, selling Congress a "progress" story about the war in Afghanistan that isn't believed by US intelligence analysts. Whether Members of Congress choose to believe Petraeus' reassurances over the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community ("who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?") could prove decisive in determining whether the July drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that President Obama has promised will be "token," as the Pentagon wants, or is "substantial," as the overwhelming majority of Americans want. The stakes are high: a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan this year would save many American and Afghan lives and tens of billions of dollars, and would open political space in Afghanistan for a negotiated political settlement that ends the civil war.

The Los Angeles Times reported:

When Gen. David H. Petraeus appears before Congress on Tuesday to tout progress in Afghanistan, he will face a series of pessimistic assessments about the state of the war, including the intelligence community's conclusion that tactical gains achieved by a U.S. troop surge have failed to fundamentally weaken the Taliban.

At a hearing last week,

Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, offered a sobering view - one that is shared by the CIA, U.S. officials say - that contrasted sharply with the optimism expressed in recent days by Petraeus, who will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

"The Taliban in the south has shown resilience and still influences much of the population, particularly outside urban areas," Burgess said, speaking of a region where the U.S. has been focusing many of its resources.

The U.S.-led coalition has been killing Taliban militants by the hundreds, he said, but there has been "no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight..."

There is a politically feasible alternative to General Petraeus' urgings to "stay the course." That alternative is for the Obama Administration to follow through on its promise to begin withdrawing troops in July with a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces. A bipartisan letter to President Obama circulating in the House, signed by more than 50 Members so far, is urging the President to carry out a significant withdrawal. (You can urge your Representative to sign the letter here.)

This alternative is politically feasible because:

a) a super-majority of Americans support a substantial withdrawal;
b) the Democratic Party is on record in favor of a "swift withdrawal" that begins with "a significant and sizeable reduction in U.S. troop levels by no later than July of this year";
c) influential voices in the Administration, including Vice-President Biden, have argued in favor of a substantial withdrawal of forces, beginning in July; and
d) a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces would bring tangible benefits, including fewer American and Afghan lives lost, tens of billions of dollars saved at a time when budget deficits are being invoked as a justification for draconian cuts in domestic spending, and improved prospects for a negotiated political resolution that ends the war.

Public opinion:

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say Obama should withdraw a "substantial number" of combat troops from Afghanistan this summer, including 80% of independents, the Washington Post reports. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, including two-thirds of independents.

The Democratic Party:

Last month, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution stating that "the Democratic Party supports prioritizing job creation and a swift withdrawal of U.S. armed forces and military contractors in Afghanistan which must include a significant and sizable reduction no later than July 2011." Last July, Nancy Pelosi said she expected to see a "serious drawdown" from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011.

Vice-President Biden:

Last year, Vice-President Biden told us we could "bet" on "a whole lot of people moving out" in July 2011.

Tangible benefits of a substantial withdrawal:

Fewer U.S. soldier deaths

If U.S. soldiers being killed in Afghanistan is bad, then more U.S. soldiers being killed in Afghanistan is more bad and fewer U.S. soldiers being killed in Afghanistan is less bad.

Since 2001, the more U.S. soldiers there are in Afghanistan, the more get killed.

In January 2009, there were a about 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which at that point, was the highest level so far. Today, there are nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The consequence of this escalation in terms of U.S. troop deaths has been that 837 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, as opposed to 575 U.S. soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan under President Bush (as shown by the "U.S. Deaths in Afghanistan: Obama vs Bush" web counter.)

US Deaths in Afghanistan: Obama vs Bush. Click here to learn more.

The 837 U.S. soldiers who were killed under President Obama were killed over a period of roughly 26 months. The 575 U.S. soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan under President Bush were killed over a period of roughly 114 months. So, on average, under President Bush, 5 U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan per month, while under President Obama, 32 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan per month, a net increase of 27 U.S. soldiers killed per month. Thus, if we returned to the average Bush-era troop levels in Afghanistan, as opposed to the average Obama-era levels, we would save the lives of 27 U.S. soldiers per month, or about 326 U.S. soldiers over the course of a year.

Of course, it is not likely that we would return to average Bush era troop levels in Afghanistan immediately. Suppose we assume, very modestly, that a substantial drawdown occurs over the course of a year, that is, by July 1, 2012, as President Obama runs for re-election, there are fewer than 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a few less than when he took office. We'd expect the monthly death rate then to return to about 11 U.S. soldiers per month, for an average death rate over the year of about 22 per month. This would still save the lives of about 120 U.S. soldiers over the course of the year.

Fewer Afghan civilian deaths

If Afghan civilians being killed is bad, then more Afghan civilians being killed is more bad and fewer Afghan civilians being killed is less bad.

Since 2001, the more U.S. soldiers there are in Afghanistan, the more Afghan civilians get killed.

Unlike the U.S. soldiers, we don't know precisely how many civilians have been killed in the war in Afghanistan, and we likely never will. There are different estimates by different parties, which make comparisons over time much more challenging .

However, we do know clearly what the trend has been in Afghanistan since 2008: more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, more civilian deaths. The UN has reported a 15 percent increase in civilian deaths between 2009 and 2010, following a 14 percent increase between 2008 and 2009. So, if we reduced troop levels to 2008 levels, we should be able to reduce civilian deaths by 24%. It's certain that the UN figures are an undercount of civilian deaths, but even taking them at face value, a reduction in civilian deaths over the period of 24% would save the lives of 329 Afghan civilians.

Tens of billions of dollars saved, countering claimed need for domestic cuts

A rough estimate has been that it costs about $10 billion to put 10,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan for a year. Suppose that this figure is roughly correct for our purposes here. Suppose a "token withdrawal" over the course of the year following July 1 consists of no more than 10,000 troops. And suppose a "substantial withdrawal" would leave no more than 30,000 US troops in Afghanistan on July 1, 2012 - again, just a bit less than the level when President Obama took office.

If we pretend that the withdrawal of troops would happen at a constant rate, then the first scenario is like having 95,000 troops in Afghanistan on average for a year, and the second scenario is like having 65,000 troops there on average for a year. Thus, a "substantial drawdown" would result in an average of 30,000 less troops in Afghanistan over the course of the year, resulting in a savings of $30 billion - half of what the House Republican leadership wants to save by eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Americorps, and cutting money for infant nutrition, community health centers, Head Start, and rental assistance, among other things.

Open political space for a negotiated resolution

Finally, a significant reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create political space in Afghanistan for a negotiated political resolution to end the war, as Afghan President Karzai and others have argued.

As Reuters reported on March 2:

"Admitting that there was 'friction' with his Western allies over strategy in Afghanistan, Karzai said he had told his allies the military surge should be scaled back to permit negotiations. 'The military is less inclined to accept it (this argument). The political side, the civilian side, is more inclined to it,' he said."

"Substantial drawdown" isn't pie in the sky. Congress can make it happen. Urge your Representative to speak up.