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Buying Time in Afghanistan

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President Obama is taking heat for announcing troop withdrawals last night without clarifying U.S. war aims in Afghanistan. Yet his basic strategy couldn't be clearer. It is to depart Afghanistan gradually -- a fighting withdrawal -- to maximize the odds that the Taliban won't be able to take over once U.S. troops are gone.

It may not work, but it's hard to see a better alternative. The United States can't "win" this war in any conventional sense. We can't defeat the Taliban, which unfortunately has an ethnic and popular base in Pashtun regions. We can't afford nation-building in Afghanistan right now, even if we knew how to do it. We can't make the central government fundamentally less corrupt and more effective in delivering basic services. The best we can do is to build and train Afghan security forces, bolster local resistance to the Taliban and degrade the insurgents' military strength.

This course at least gives Afghans a fighting chance to keep the Taliban at bay without foreign help, and may reinforce efforts to find a political resolution to the conflict. Otherwise, the United States faces an unpalatable choice between getting out quickly and hoping for the best, or an endless military engagement to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for Islamist militancy and terror plots.

The political media interpreted Obama's decision to withdraw 10,000 troops as a bid to split the difference between a public that seems increasingly disenchanted with the war and U.S. military leaders, who believe we are making progress against the insurgency. In fact, the president's purpose was to buy time for the U.S. military to continue its campaign to weaken the Taliban. Here's the headline we should have seen: "Obama promises three more years of war."

The president plans to draw down an additional 20,000 troops by next summer, but that will leave over 60,000 U.S. troops in the fight until 2014. He argued that his surge of 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan has succeeded in dislodging the Taliban from broad swaths of the south. Meanwhile, drone attacks have taken a heavy toll on al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and of course U.S. forces finally caught up with Osama bin Laden. It wasn't quite a "mission accomplished" moment, but Obama clearly believes these tactical gains justify a more deliberate withdrawal than many in his own party -- and a growing band of restive Republicans -- would like.

In a sense, Obama is applying the Iraq template to Afghanistan. His pledge during the campaign to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2012 helped cool anti-war passions at home and give Gen. David Petraeus's surge a chance to work. Likewise, by setting a date certain for an end to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Obama buys time to build on the U.S. military's hard-won successes.

The big difference, though, is that Iraq's Sunnis turned against al Qaeda. The Taliban is an indigenous insurgency, not an imported conspiracy like al Qaeda. And the longer U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan, the more they risk triggering a broader and more nationalistic revolt against the latest foreign invader.

Obama is betting that we have a brief window of opportunity to wear down the still unpopular Taliban before that sort of transformation can take place, and before war-weary Americans give up on the Afghan mission. It's not a bet that inspires confidence, but for now it's the least-bad option.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.

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