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The Afghan Withdrawal Date is Smart Policy

As American forces continue the battle to drive Taliban forces from Afghan territory, a debate persists over whether President Obama was right to set a withdrawal date of July 2011 for US troops leaving the country. What was Obama attempting to do by dispatching an additional 30,000 soldiers to the country and then establishing such a public schedule for their departure? Let me answer that by first citing President Obama's exact words on his much-publicized deadline. Obama stated at West Point on December 1, 2009, that "taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground." Obama made clear in his statement that his deadline marked the beginning of a draw-down from Afghanistan. He did not say he was undertaking a full pullout of U.S. troops on that date. Furthermore, he was emphatic that his change in strategy would be dependent on "conditions on the ground." Quite evidently, he inserted that phrase to give himself wiggle room to revise, amend, and reboot his tactics if the war worsens by the summer of 2011, for example, if there are still not enough Afghan forces available to protect the government at that time, or for some other unanticipated contingency. In doing this, he was making clear to the Afghans that the U.S. was not walking away from the country.

But why should he have set a deadline at all? For the simple reason that, if you don't insist on a deadline, the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, will do little to reform his government, end corruption, and assume defense of his own country. 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." Or, as British Afghan expert Rory Stewart, writing in the January 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books, saw it: "As long as the U.S. asserted that Afghanistan was an existentialist threat, the front line in the war on terror, and that, therefore, failure was not an option, the U.S. had no leverage over Karzai." Thus President Obama, to exert pressure on Karzai to end his reliance on America, had to establish a clear finish date by which time Karzai had to take fuller responsibility over his own nation's fate. Yes, as Obama said, we are still intent on tracking down and defeating al-Qaeda worldwide, but in Afghanistan we can, at best, contain Kabul's greatest peril--the Taliban--and "deny it the ability to overthrow the government." But, Obama was saying, we don't have the resources to do more.

And there is another reason for Obama's decision to set a deadline--namely our dire economic situation at home. As Obama explained in his address: "As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. ... We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. ... So we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars. ... That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended--because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own." Indeed, by the deadline of July 2011, the U.S. will have lost hundreds more American lives as well as spent billions more U.S. tax dollars in Afghanistan--and that's clearly as much as the American populace, by Obama's judgment, is willing to put up with after ten years. Obama's decision in setting a completion timeline, in short, is the result of a hard-nosed and realistic assessment by an experienced political leader of his own nation's capacity to endure further continuation of wartime obligations. In short, just as Obama was being realistic about the need to compel Karzai to take on the governance of his own his country, Obama was also being realistic about the limited willingness of our own citizenry to support the Afghans as opposed to deal with the needs of our country at home. Obama was acting as the leader of a great nation who must calibrate his country's national interests in a balanced and proportionate way.

What else does a deadline accomplish? A deadline will likely give the Karzai government more credibility as it seeks to begin serious negotiations with the Taliban, perhaps along the lines of a coalition government a la Nepal, especially if Obama's surge manages to blunt the Taliban offensive and convince the insurgents that their cause is futile. Karzai, indeed, is already making overtures to the Taliban, possibly as a result of the Obama deadline. And, as the Taliban is a local Pashtun group, not a global Islamic extremist movement or al-Qaeda itself, there may be grounds for both parties to work out a deal as Karzai, too, is a fellow Pashtun. The Taliban have insisted all along that they won't start talks with Karzai until the U.S. sets a date for withdrawal. This means that even if Karzai makes no progress with the Taliban, the Obama deadline at least meets the foe's condition and will test the Taliban's readiness to abide by it. And a settlement with the Taliban could well mean the end of al-Qaeda, since many in the Taliban cannot forgive al-Qaeda for its 9/11 attacks on the U.S., which led to the Taliban's defeat in 2001. In any event, most of al-Qaeda's band have already fled to Pakistan or Yemen.

The deadline is also a signal to our compatriots in the region that the U.S. and its NATO allies are not going to continue shouldering the burden of the Afghan war indefinitely and that the countries that border Afghanistan or have interests in it--including Russia, Iran, India, and China and the various "stans"--must now themselves become engaged in this conflict, supplying resources and forces to defeat the enemy. One may recall that Russia, Iran, India, and Tajikistan originally assisted the U.S. in ousting the Taliban in 2001 out of fear that otherwise the Taliban militants would foment domestic Islamic insurgencies within their borders and possibly spur narcotics traffic throughout the region. Today Iran, India, China, and Saudi Arabia (among other nations) are already giving economic aid to Kabul and would surely increase their assistance if the U.S. reduced its own.

A deadline also has the advantage of alerting our own armed forces, in advance, that Washington is not going to engage in an endless war and the U.S. military must, from the start of the surge, adjust its scope of action within these political limits. The existence of a date certain, in fact, serves as a checkmate on any effort by our military leaders to try, through news leaks or public appeals, to circumvent Obama and prolong the war. As Rory Stewart noted in the New York Review of Books: "By no longer committing the U.S. to defeating the Taliban or state-building, [Obama] dramatically reduces the objectives and costs of the mission. By talking about costs, the fragility of public support, and other priorities, he reminds the generals why this surge must be the last." There is concern, nonetheless, that a deadline may cause confusion in the ranks of some of our Afghan and Pakistani allies regarding how serious the U.S. commitment is to the mission of getting rid of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and helping to secure their governments--and could cause some of our NATO brethren to reconsider the depth of their own involvement in the Afghan war. But Obama's explanation of his deadline in his West Point speech helps to dispel doubts about America's long-term willingness to engage in the region. Whatever he does, though, Obama will have a difficult time persuading the Pakistanis to drop their support of the Afghan Taliban so long as Pakistan and India remain at loggerheads over Kashmir. This might change if Pakistan persuades the Afghan Taliban to drop its ties to al-Qaeda--in which case the U.S. might accept a continuing Paki-Taliban sphere of influence in Afghanistan.

Finally, most of the controversy over Obama's deadline has come with the argument that the Taliban, knowing in advance that there is a withdrawal date, will simply wait until the Americans leave in order to topple the Karzai regime. Still, as I noted earlier, the Taliban have said all along that it will not negotiate with the Karzai government or with the Americans until the U.S. commits to a departure date. Thus Obama's July 2011 date could actually lead to talks rather than to an upsurge in Taliban fighting. In any case, it is worth testing the Taliban on whether they are serious about negotiations or not. Furthermore, this argument does not take into consideration the fact that the U.S. introduction of some 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan may severely damage the Taliban by July 2011 and allow the training of a sizeable number of Afghan troops and, in addition, accelerate Western help in reviving Afghanistan's domestic economy. All of this together might give the Taliban yet another reason to enter into negotiations. In any case, the U.S. is not about to let the Karzai government collapse. It may pull out many of its troops from the country after 2011, but it will continue to supply military equipment and financial aid to the regime. As President Obama said in his West Point speech, even after the deadline, "we will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul."

One last impact that a deadline might provide is a specific timeline for outside negotiators like the U.N. to get involved in trying to settle the conflict a la the loya jirga route. Though President Obama has never publicly recommended the U.N. as a possible intermediary to negotiate an end to the conflict, he did in his West Point speech single out the U.N. as one of America's most important "partners" in Afghanistan helping "to pursue a more effective civilian strategy." Already, in fact, some U.N. officials have made contact with the Taliban. Thus, presumably, at the time of the turnover, the U.N. might use its good offices to convene a peace conference akin to its 2002 conference setting up Afghanistan's interim government--except this time the U.N. would organize the gathering on a global basis, bringing in all of the states that border Afghanistan, all of the NATO countries with troops on the ground, as well as India and Russia to hammer out a comprehensive settlement plan. Such an initiative would be geared to serve the interests of all parties--including the Taliban--and meld together all the disparate geographical, ideological, cultural, and political interests in play.

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