One of the largest imponderables of the American commitment in Afghanistan has been President Obama's decision to set a deadline of July 2011 for the beginning of a draw-down in US forces from that South Asian nation. That date, established last year, has engendered much controversy about whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for achieving peace in the country. But Obama's time-table is helping to end the war.
Obama's original rationale for establishing the withdrawal date was, as he said in his speech at West Point last December, to re-establish the "balance" between our national security and our economy. After a nine-year war costing billions of taxpayer dollars and exacting a fearsome toll on our military, he said "our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended -- because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own." As part of this readjustment, he conceded that there is going to be no victory in Afghanistan, but we will "reverse the Taliban momentum" with the dispatch of 30,000 more troops. But the main import of Obama's address was his firming up an exit date to recalibrate the balance of our security interests in favor of our homeland.
A secondary, but unmentioned reason, for a departure time, was that, if one didn't insist on a deadline, the long-time President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, would do little to reform his government and seek peace. As the current U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, wrote in a confidential cable to Washington last November, "Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the US to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending 'war on terror' and for military bases to use against surrounding powers."
The deadline has unnerved Karzai. The prospect of a US withdrawal has proven bracing. As a man who clearly wants to retain power, Karzai has now, with US prodding, begun to mount a serious campaign to initiate talks with the Taliban, possibly to bring his foes into a coalition government. And it does not hurt that most of his adversaries are from his same tribe, the Pashtuns, who believe, like Karzai, they are the natural rulers of the nation. Presumably Karzai will be seeking a Nepal-style settlement to insure the preservation of the constitution, a laying down of arms, women's rights, elections and an end to Taliban links with Al Qaeda.
Could the Taliban refuse to cooperate and wait for the US withdrawal and then try to seize Afghanistan themselves? That prospect no longer seems likely. The Taliban are in a far weaker position than in 2001, according to the UN Representative to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura. De Mistura pointed out last month at the International Peace Institute in New York, that the Taliban remain profoundly unpopular, are divided among themselves, confront undying opposition from the Northern Alliance, face foreign troops in the country and have incurred the deep hostility of neighboring states.
And what impact has Obama's timetable had on our own forces? The withdrawal date has altered the generals' previously open-ended strategy. The military did successfully pressure Obama into giving them more troops last year, but, in exchange, they had to agree to a limited time period to blunt the Taliban attacks (and Al Qaeda remnants), complete most of the training of the Afghan forces and strengthen the Afghan government. Obama's public determination to commence departure by July 2011 makes postponement of the deadline improbable.
There still remain critical, related, interests to be resolved among the regional states. As a US departure looms, for example, Afghanistan's most important neighbor, Pakistan, will not drop its support for the Afghan Taliban (short of a deal with India over Kashmir). But the US may approve Pakistan's alliance with the insurgents if the latter agree to sever ties with Al Qaeda. As for the other countries in the area, they appear ready to accept some sort of region-wide settlement, perhaps under a UN umbrella, if a pacified Afghanistan can be guaranteed. All of this is happening because of Obama's deadline. Without his decision to set a departure date, we could soon be entering our 11th year of war -- America's longest -- still chasing the illusion of victory.