The president has apparently rejected his vice president’s recommendation that the U.S. move simply to counter-terrorism efforts and abandon the full civil-military counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan. THE WEEKLY STANDARD has further been told that Obama’s drawdown could be as large as ten thousand troops this summer, another ten thousand early or mid-next year, and the rest of the surge forces by the end of 2012.
It therefore appears the president will ask U.S. troops to assume more risk—and will put the mission at greater risk—than General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates thought wise, by ordering a larger and quicker drawdown than they recommended.
What sort of withdrawal is Petraeus comfortable with? According to Marc Ambinder, rather than lose 10,000 men ASAP, he wants 5,000 troops gone by year’s end and then another 5,000 by next spring. As of six weeks ago, though, military officers in Afghanistan were reportedly aiming for a brisker drawdown — not quite as brisk as The One’s plan (assuming the Standard’s numbers are correct), but speedier than Petraeus’s. From the May 10 edition of the WSJ:
U.S. military officers in Afghanistan have drawn up preliminary proposals to withdraw as many as 5,000 troops from the country in July and as many as 5,000 more by the year’s end, the first phase of a U.S. pullout promised by President Barack Obama, officials say…
The plans were drafted before the U.S. killed [Osama Bin Laden], and could be revised. They have yet to be formally presented to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who must then seek White House approval for a withdrawal…
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said bin Laden’s death could be a “game-changer” in Afghanistan. U.S. officials hope that the weakening of al Qaeda might make their Taliban allies more receptive to a negotiated settlement, though they say it could take six months or longer to know what impact bin Laden’s death will have on the fighting.
Three different actors, three different withdrawal recommendations. The officers may be looking at conditions on the ground in isolation and thinking that they’re sufficiently well positioned to spare 5,000 men up front. Petraeus may be looking instead at the slow pace of peace talks and thinking either that things are bound to get worse before they get better and/or that the more troops we have in the field, the greater our leverage at the table with the Taliban will be. The WaPo piece linked up top mentions, in fact, that “The administration had hoped to couple Obama’s announcement on troop withdrawals with news of progress on political reconciliation with Taliban leaders,” but there’s simply not enough progress to warrant mentioning. And why would there be? If the Taliban knows we’re committed to a significant withdrawal over the next two years, they’re better off waiting until the surge troops are gone and then seeing what kind of deal they can get.
As for The One, he’s looking at 2012, of course, plus an assortment of new polls confirming how war-weary the public is. The election dictated his position on debt reduction; why shouldn’t it inform the pace at which troops come home too? In fact, as the Journal notes, his original decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan was essentially a case of “splitting the difference” between the military’s proposals for 20,000 or 40,000 more. Pulling out 10,000 troops now would be a difference-splitter too, albeit of a rougher sort: Torn between doves who are angry about Libya and eager for a significant Afghan drawdown soon and hawks who want an open-ended commitment so as not to encourage the Taliban, he’ll order more troops out now than Petraeus and the officers would like but not so many as to earn any significant new cred with the anti-war faction. Just think of it as him rejecting the “false choice” between cutting our losses and committing to victory. Assuming the Standard’s inside scoop is accurate, of course.
So many possible exit questions to choose from here. One: Remember in his speech in 2009 ordering the surge when he said, “Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust”? Two years later, he had to keep the Bin Laden raid secret from them because they’re a bunch of loose-lipped jihadist rats. Looking forward to the Pakistan progress report on Wednesday. Two: Per Ambinder’s story above, did the Bin Laden raid really not encourage Petraeus to increase the pace of withdrawal? If he was going to depart from his officers’ recommendations as of May 10, I would have guessed that he’d want to go faster, not slower. Read this fascinating NYT story from two days ago, in fact, to see how damaged Al Qaeda has been by U.S. troops and drones recently. Over the past year and a half, fully 20 of the group’s top 30 operatives in the region have been liquidated, including Bin Laden himself. Sounds like the White House is planning to use that as a prime justification for a more rapid withdrawal, even though Petraeus seems unimpressed by it. There’s the difference between a counterterror approach, bent on killing the baddest bad guys as they appear, and a counterinsurgent approach, bent on stabilizing the country so that it’s harder for bad guys to hide out there.
One other question: If the Standard is right, how will the GOP field react? One of the memes du jour, thanks to McCain’s soundbite yesterday about “isolationism,” is the extent to which Republican candidates are more dovish than the Bushian baseline. Romney famously said at the debate that he wanted the troops home ASAP — before quickly adding “as soon as our generals think it’s okay,” which presumably ties him to whatever Petraeus’s timeline is. He and the rest of them are going to end up criticizing whatever Obama does — O’s not the only one whose policy decisions are driven in part by the election, after all — but I’m curious to see how animated they are in doing so. Three years ago, they would have ripped him as a Carter-esque weakling for accelerating the drawdown beyond Petraeus’s comfort zone, and some of them surely still will. But now they have to balance the Rand Pauls in the base against the Marco Rubios, which means more timid criticism from some of them and maybe not much criticism at all from others. Can’t wait to see how it plays out.