Barack Obama has difficult decisions ahead of him this summer as he mulls over his pledge to draw down American troop levels after the late 2009 surge and a new, aggressive COIN strategy has made progress in Afghanistan. His main partner in the NATO coalition has complicated the problem for the US. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has demanded an immediate drawdown of hundreds of British troops and will apparently insist that his country will exit entirely by 2014:
Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the Prime Minister is increasingly determined to start bringing the Afghan mission to an end. He has told defence chiefs he wants to start the withdrawal this summer, as the US begins to reduce its troop numbers.
But British commanders have warned David Cameron that an early exit could jeopardise the counter-insurgency mission, allowing the Taliban to regain territory and popular support.
As a compromise, defence chiefs have reluctantly drawn up plans to withdraw 450 of Britain’s 10,000 troops from Afghanistan. Mr Cameron wants to agree their withdrawal with Barack Obama when he visits London later this month.
The British troops could leave Afghanistan as soon as July, when the American withdrawal begins.
The 2014 deadline isn’t much of a surprise. Cameron has said as much before, and the British electorate are likely to insist on it. Cameron is, in that sense, merely reflecting the will of the people.
On an accelerated early withdrawal, however, the Telegraph reports that military commanders see more politics than strategy at play in the accelerated drawdowns this summer. They are raiding the rear-echelon ranks in order to provide some meaty raw numbers of troops returning home in the hope that Cameron will accept that, rather than more substantial cuts in Helmand that would threaten progress made against the Taliban. If Cameron insists on the latter, that may pressure Obama to shift American troops to hold those gains, which would limit his ability to draw down troops in advance of the 2012 elections here.
Plus, the UK now has another fight on its hands in Libya. At the moment, the offensive relies entirely on air resources, but that may have to change if NATO doesn’t get the regime change it obviously seeks. Thanks to an early American exit from the NATO effort, most of the combat resources have to be supplied by the French and British. Given the American retreat on the Libya intervention, don’t expect Cameron to have a great deal of sympathy for any complications Obama may face in Afghanistan.
The death of Osama bin Laden has created an opening for our NATO partners to reassess their participation in the long slog of Afghanistan. If the US dismantles al-Qaeda, the fight in Afghanistan will look more and more like tribal warfare than a global concern. With the second-largest contingent sending off loud signals that they’re ready to start playing the end game, we’re going to have to get as much done as quickly as possible, and hope it will be enough.