Pressure is growing for the United States to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The assassination of Osama bin Laden gave President Obama a passing but welcome reprieve from criticism and low poll ratings, yet it also led to a growing chorus of Americans who are urging the administration to pull out large numbers of U.S. forces from the region.
The president will reportedly lay out his plan for troop cutbacks in the coming days, and with proper maneuvering, he has the ability to honorably withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after nearly 10 years of combat. So what is the best way to leave that country without appearing to have exited in defeat? A good starting point for answering this question is to learn from mistakes that have been made in past withdrawals from insurgencies.
Take the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example. From November 1987 to January 1988, it undertook a largely conventional goal during a most unconventional war. Codenamed Operation Magistral, the Red Army assumed a highly visible military objective: take control of the north-south highway and alleviate pressure on the city of Khost. The real purpose behind the objective was to demonstrate to the world that although the feared Red Army was withdrawing, it was not retreating. It wanted to highlight that its goals for the occupation had been met. While the insurgents were soundly defeated, control of the road was maintained for only 12 days. This left the Soviets with little to show for their efforts.
In a 2009 interview with Jim Lehrer, President Obama was asked about America's goals for Afghanistan. He answered, "Well, I don't think that they're clear enough, that's part of the problem. We've seen a sense of drift in the mission in Afghanistan, and that's why I've ordered a head-to-toe, soup-to-nuts review of our approach in Afghanistan." By the summer of 2010, the president was able to clarify his thinking in a CBS interview, stating, "What we're looking to do is difficult but it's a fairly modest goal, which is: Don't allow terrorists to operate from this region. Don't allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland with impunity. That can be accomplished."
Modest goals in counterinsurgencies are important. All too often, world leaders overstate their objectives, and when they cannot be met they appear as failures. When the French occupied Algeria, for instance, its government consistently refused to negotiate with the rebels. Only when the insurgents had rebounded and gained the upper hand, did the French government finally agree to negotiate -- subsequently capitulating to all of the rebels' demands. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised to hold the Lebanese and Syrian governments accountable for any military actions taken once the IDF pulled out of southern Lebanon in May 2000. Yet in October of that same year, Hezbollah forces crossed the Israeli border, kidnapped and killed three Israeli soldiers. Despite the rhetoric, Israel's response was negligible, and Hezbollah attacks continued for six years. Israel's deterrence was weakened as Hezbollah's popularity swelled.
With the assassination of bin Laden, President Obama can point to a clear victory in the "war on terror." This is an objective that will not disappear like Operation Magistral's. What's more, according to WikiLeaks, there are less than 100 members of al Qaeda operating in Afghanistan -- indicating that U.S.-led efforts to defeat al Qaeda have largely succeeded. Negotiating with adversaries is never fun, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should expand on her February 18, 2011 comments, and agree to negotiations with the Taliban, as indeed Afghanistan's own Hamid Karzai has indicated the United States is now doing. By opening negotiations in a position of strength, the United States is more likely to achieve President Obama's stated objectives, and conduct a withdrawal that is not perceived as a defeat.
The United States will undoubtedly withdraw from Afghanistan at some time in the future, and it can either choose to do so under its own realistic timeline, or continue to push it off until it realizes it cannot meet unrealistic goals, such as the surrender of the Taliban, a democratic Afghanistan, or the complete elimination of al Qaeda. If President Obama takes the necessary steps and makes some hard decisions, he may be able to pull U.S. troops out of this insurgency and still have the United States perceived as the victor, rather than as another power that had to withdraw under fire.