Why Obama Is Right to Withdraw From Afghanistan Early

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Hastening America's exit will be painful, and undercuts years of U.S. efforts, but it's our least bad choice in this doomed war.

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Afghan President Hamid Karzai shake hands during a joint news conference in Kabul / Reuters

The Obama administration's acceleration of its Afghanistan withdrawal deadline to 2013, a year earlier than planned, is a break with America's commitment to its NATO and Afghan allies, an abandonment of a mission Obama deemed "essential" in his 2008 campaign, and kills any chances of negotiating an acceptable settlement with the Taliban. It's also the right thing to do.

On his way to a NATO ministerial, U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta announced on Wednesday that "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice, and assist role."

A little more than a year ago, at the November 2010 Lisbon Summit , the NATO allies declared -- after substantial arm twisting by the Obama administration -- that the "ISAF mission in Afghanistan remains the Alliance's key priority" and "Afghanistan's security and stability are directly linked with our own security." The allies agreed that, by "the end of 2014, Afghan forces will be assuming full responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan" but that "Transition will be conditions-based, not calendar-driven, and will not equate to withdrawal of ISAF-troops."

So much for all that tough talk, which has been countermanded by Panetta's new timetable. So, too, has it shifted the administration's longstanding position on Afghanistan.

In a 2009 speech to the nation from West Point, Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan because he was "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan," which he termed "the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda." To the extent that was true then, it almost certainly still is.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama committed to "Finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban," charging that the Bush administration had neglected the necessary war in Afghanistan for the unnecessary one in Iraq. Given that we are no closer to "breaking the Taliban's momentum," nor is Afghanistan any closer to being stable or ready to manage its own security, it's tough to see this hasty withdrawal as anything other than an admission of defeat and a cutting of losses.

Critics who worry that this announcement of a withdrawal severely undercuts our negotiating position with the Taliban are surely correct. They can easily bide their time now that they have a date certain.

So how can a decision that undermines our allies and our own negotiating power nonetheless be the right one? Because the alternative is to continue getting people killed -- not to mention inadvertently killing innocents -- in a fight we can't win.

The recent release of a secret NATO report on the Taliban focused on "revelations" that they're being directly helped by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency -- something anyone even casually familiar with the region has taken for granted for quite some time. The more valuable takeaway was the resilience of our enemy.

The report notes of the Taliban, "Despite numerous setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset. For the moment, they believe that continuing the fight and expanding Taliban governance are their only viable course of action." Additionally, "The Taliban leadership controls nearly all insurgent activity in Afghanistan. Outside groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and others must receive permission from Taliban leaders prior to conducting operations on Afghan territory."

It's become painfully obvious in recent months that the governments in both Kabul and Islamabad are, to put it mildly, less than reliable allies. There's simply no reason to think staying another year is somehow going to turn things around.

Whether NATO's goals are achievable with unlimited time and resources is debatable. It's also moot. Most of our allies were going to have, at most, a token force in Afghanistan through the end of 2014. They were there largely at America's urging and they'll be happy to leave.

The Economist's Clausewitz columnist suggested that the report is overly pessimistic, fearing that Panetta's announcement "may have triggered an unseemly rush to for the exit." Alas, it began years ago. The United States supplies 90,000 of the 130,386 troops in ISAF and only a handful of members supply as many as a thousand. France had already beaten Panetta to the draw, announcing it would speed up its withdrawal after an Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers, deflating already abysmal public support in France for the war effort.

As with many other Obama foreign policy decisions, one might have wished for a better rollout. Consultation with our NATO allies and partners on the matter would have been good form. And, after a more than a decade of fighting, a presidential speech rather than a casual announcement by the defense secretary would have been more fitting.

Ultimately, though, hastening the day Americans stop dying for a lost cause is the right call.

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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