How will the war in Afghanistan end?
This isn’t a trick question. The answer is simple: the war will end when President Obama signs an order ending it; that is, when the president tells his commanders: "It’s over." Opponents of the war — including left-wing antiwar activists, liberal progressives, centrists, "realists," and conservative libertarians — will have to unite to pressure, cajole, persuade, and convince Obama to issue that order.
Fortunately, in his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama provided the war’s opponents with a tactical wedge to use in driving their point home: the president’s announcement that beginning in July 2011 — just eighteen months from now — US forces in Afghanistan will start to draw down.
Despite his decision to add 30,000 more US troops, whose deployment won’t even be complete until sometime late this year, the president has declared that not only will the United States not send additional forces to the war, beyond the circa 100,000 that is the current ceiling, but that in less than a year and a half, US forces will start to decline. The declaration of July 2011 as the start of a withdrawal — call it a "transition" to Afghan forces, if you like — is a statement that has to be emphasized repeatedly by opponents of the war, played, and replayed, and replayed until the media, the public, Congress, have it memorized. It has to be set in stone.
Of course, the deadline that the president set is a fuzzy one. Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of State Clinton, and the military have all tried to make it even fuzzier, by stating that it is "conditions-based," that is, that the number of troops who leave, and the pace of that withdrawal, will depend on conditions on the ground, especially the readiness of the Afghan security forces. To be sure, some of that — especially their congressional testimony in December — was couched in a way designed to mollify hawks, right-wingers, and neoconservatives in Congress, especially in the Republican party, who liked the escalation of the war but who sharply criticized the July 2011 date. The fact still stands: according to the president, the US will start withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in 18 months.
That provides the war’s opponents with a tactical wedge.
Here’s what that means: Let’s hold Obama to his word. If indeed he intends to start drawing down forces by then, what steps is he taking to make sure it happens? Is he demanding that his diplomats and military officers start talks with the Taliban and its allies? Is he launching a regional diplomatic effort with Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia — along with Russia, China, and the European Union — to seek an Afghan settlement? What are the benchmarks that have to be met between now and July, 2011? Are they being met? When the United States starts to draw down its forces, what kind of security force will remain? Will it include international peace-keepers? What kind of Afghan government will be in place in July 2011 and how will that government accommodate the ethnic and sectarian conflict, especially among disaffected Pashtuns in Afghanistan’s south and east, to end the civil war?