Tonight, President Obama is expected to announce a reduction of our troops in Afghanistan of 10,000 by the end of this year and 23,000 more by next summer — thereby unwinding the “surge” he announced 18 months ago. The question already being debated: Is this the right time to begin the withdrawal?
Keeping in mind that removing the pre-surge contingent of almost 70,000 troops apparently is not imminent, I decided to look back at Obama’s speech 18 months ago, to cadets at West Point, and see what he said then to justify the surge. Here is the key portion of that speech:
I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.
Of course, this burden is not ours alone to bear. This is not just America’s war. Since 9/11, al Qaeda’s safe havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali. The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered. And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them.
These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.
As I wrote at the time, preparing the Afghan military and police to take over security for their country was a perfectly reasonable goal. But have we accomplished that, to the point that we can begin the withdrawal? Or is the president merely sticking to an arbitrary timetable?
The number of Afghan police and soldiers has grown significantly this year. Yet, if you trust our top field commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus — or at least if you believe this New York Times report on what Petraeus thinks — you’ll be inclined to think the move is premature:
Two administration officials said General Petraeus did not endorse the decision, though both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is retiring, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reluctantly accepted it. General Petraeus had recommended limiting initial withdrawals and leaving in place as many combat forces for as long as possible, to hold on to fragile gains made in recent combat.
At the same time, 10 years (almost) is 10 years. At some point, we have to find out whether Afghanistan can bear the brunt of securing Afghanistan while a more (and, one hopes, increasingly) limited U.S. force continues to target al Qaida and Taliban leaders.
So, while tonight I definitely still want to hear Obama’s rationale and explanation of how close we’ve come to meeting the goals of the surge he outlined 18 months ago, for now I am willing to go along with this: Ten thousand soldiers withdrawn by year’s end and further withdrawals next year — provided the situation on the ground doesn’t deteriorate. Next year’s withdrawals must be flexible, and contingent on the Afghan military proving it’s up to the task of taking the reins.
If Afghanistan was important to America’s security 18 months ago, and if it continues to be important enough to warrant our having tens of thousands of young men and women there, then we need to have the people and resources in place to see to our security interests. Otherwise, it makes no sense to leave a single one of our soldiers there in worsening conditions.
– By Kyle Wingfield