Compared to Afghanistan, where the United States has 100,000 troops and is fighting a full-blown war, President Obama’s unfortunate and poorly thought-out “limited war” against Libya is getting all the attention. But there is a crucial turning point coming in the Afghan war, namely, the July deadline for the start of an American withdrawal. Whether that withdrawal is a token one, involving a handful of troops, or the beginning of a significant, accelerating pullout of US forces, is yet to be determined.
Last week, at an event sponsored by the Century Foundation, I spoke to Gen. Douglas Lute, Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan, who serves on the National Security Council in the White House. When I asked Lute about a suggestion from Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress that the 30,000 troops added by Obama in December, 2009, could be withdrawn within six months, starting in July, Lute said that taking out that many forces is at the very highest end of what the administration is thinking about, though he didn’t rule it out. Far more likely, Lute said, the White House will order the orderly withdrawal of the surge over 12 to 18 months. That will leave about 70,000 Americans still fighting in Afghanistan in November, 2012, while giving the president room to argue that he’s winding down the war as he runs for reelection.
In turn, that means that if the administration intends to continue the pullout, it would draw down the rest of its forces by the end of 2014, the deadline that President Karzai and NATO have set for the transfer of security throughout Afghanistan to the Afghan army and police. (What happens after that is up for grabs, too, with various administration officials talking about an extended US military presence in Afghanistan after that, though at vastly reduced numbers.)
That’s not nearly fast enough to satisfy the antiwar wing of the Obama’s Democratic base, nor is it likely to convince most Americans—who’ve turned dramatically against the war—that a corner has been turned. It will take continuing pressure on the White House, starting now, to bolster the arguments of those inside the administration that a far faster withdrawal needs to happen. Five more years of war in Afghanistan, until the end of 2014, is a depressing thought.
The Washington Post, in a disturbing article this week, described the battle inside the Obama administration over what to do. Once again, that battle pits the generals against President Obama and has advisers, in a reprise of the struggle outlined in Bob Woodward’s brilliant book, Obama’s Wars. According to the Post, in the article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, General David Petraeus is once again dragging his feet, refusing to give Obama an option for an accelerated pullout. He wrote: