For the first time in ten years, the light at the end of the tunnel of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is suddenly visible
To understand the implications of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan this evening, perhaps the best place to start is not with what he said tonight in public, but what he allegedly said in private 18 months ago. Then, as he was making the decision to take the advice of his military and surge 30,000 troops to fight a war he had inherited, the President posed a leading question to his top general:
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.
"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.
Tonight the bill on that promise came due. Reporter Bob Woodward's 2010 book-length account of the Obama administration's decision to escalate in Afghanistan shows Obama siding with Petraeus in 2009, but only ambivalently and conditionally, and in a way that suggested he was willing to give the counterinsurgency strategy a chance but was not convinced of its success. If there is one overriding takeaway from Obama's speech tonight, it is that the same President who 18 months ago was led by his generals into an escalation that he didn't appear to fully support has now taken back control of his policy in Afghanistan. Right now, that means leading U.S. strategy down the path of de-escalation. As Obama said, this not the end of the war in Afghanistan, but it's certainly the beginning of America's effort to "wind down the war."
Tomorrow's newspaper and TV headlines will, undoubtedly, focus on the President's announcement that he will be drawing down 33,000 surge troops by the summer of 2012. There's no question that this matters, particularly to those 33,000 Americans and their families. But more important than troop numbers is how the military prosecutes the war going forward. The military will now have only one more fighting season -- between now and the arrival of winter -- to wage war against the Taliban at relatively full troop levels. Plans to send more troops into Afghanistan's eastern provinces will likely be permanently shelved. And unlike his 2009 West Point speech announcing the surge, the President was clear in stating that the troop drawdown will "continue . . . at a steady pace" and not be dependent on conditions on the ground.
All of this suggests that the Obama administration is pushing the military away from a strategy of stabilization and pacification in Afghan's most insecure regions (proponents call this approach counterinsurgency, critics tend to call it nation-building) and toward a more limited counter-terrorism strategy. On the ground, this will likely mean more drones, more special forces operations to eliminate high value targets, and a focus on consolidating what Obama called the "fragile, but reversible" gains already made in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. That is perhaps not as far as some in the President's own party would like him to have gone, but it is a clear renunciation of the military's preferred approach to the war.