It’s decision time for President Obama on Afghanistan.
Most likely, the decision is already made, and here’s what it will look like. The president will order the withdrawal of up to 15,000 troops by next January, and then the rest of the December 2009 “surge” will be pulled out by late 2012, in advance of the election here. That will give Obama political space to argue to antiwar Democrats and increasingly isolationist Republicans that he’s started the drawdown, while protecting himself against charges from hawks that’s he giving up on the war.
It’s not enough, and a decision like that will anger the left, many liberals, and realists who realize that the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting. Two-thirds of Americans agree with the idea that Afghanistan is a useless war, but Obama is counting on the fact that other issues, especially the economic crisis, will swamp concerns about war and foreign policy. That’s probably a safe bet, in fact. So it’s likely that Obama can get away with a bad decision to extend the war to 2014 and beyond.
Beyond, because today’s New York Times suggests that the Obama administration wants to keep as many as 25,000 troops in Afghanistan “for years or decades.” Yes, you read that correctly.
To build political support, the administration is telling every reporter who’ll listen that the killing of Osama bin Laden allows the United States to pull out forces more quickly than the military wants. Maybe so, since the military would like to keep all 30,000 surge forces in Afghanistan through 2012, except for a token withdrawal of noncombat forces. And the administration is putting out the word that Al Qaeda as an organization is crippled on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, so that fighting Al Qaeda no longer provides a rationale for the war. Again, maybe so—but then why keep 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2014, as the administration plans to do?
Last week, at a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington thinktank, Maj. Gen. Frederick Hodges provided a glimpse of the administration’s current thinking about the war. “Sometime next week President Obama will announce the beginning of the drawdown of the ‘West Point surge,’ and General Petraeus is back in Washington working with Defense Secretary Gates and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] Admiral Michael Mullen, and over the next few days they will meet with the president to discuss what the drawdown slope should be,” he said. “Some in Washington have called for a withdrawal of 15,000 US troops by the end of 2011, while Secretary Gates has said the number should be more modest. I suspect the final number will be somewhere in that ballpark. Everyone is in agreement that we don’t want to put the gains of the past year-and-a-half at risk.”
That about sums it up. Obama is thinking about a pullout somewhere “in that ballpark” between zero and 15,000 by year’s end, as the “beginning of the drawdown of the ‘West Point surge.’” If so, it’s a terrible blunder. Maybe the president will surprise us this week. But I’m not holding my breath.