Withdrawal From Afghanistan Will Likely Be Slow

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The White House's war review is still pending, but it probably won't lead to a speedier departure

David Petraeus - Jason Reed Reuters - banner.jpg

It's safe to say that Gen. David Petraeus will not present President Obama with a proposal to significantly reduce the footprint of the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Correspondingly, Obama doesn't see the need for a major course correction, even though he is impatient to end the war.

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The general, in Washington for his CIA confirmation hearings, will provide input important to the White House's pending Afghanistan strategy review, the results of which are due in July. But unlike past deliberations, which were carried out quasi-publicly through leaks and speeches, this one will be short, efficient, and largely quiet, White House officials said. There will be few formal meetings and very little public markers of decision points. Petraeus is reportedly hand-carrying his recommendations, has yet to share them with major flag and general officers, and has not committed them to an electronic format, lest they leak.

Within the next few weeks, Obama will announce his decision about the pace of the transition. A small interagency review has already finished its work, which will provide the broader context for Petraeus's recommendations.

A White House official said that Obama has not yet decided whether his order will apply to all 130,000 NATO troops in the region, whether he will adjust the withdrawal pace to account for predicted surges in violence over the summer, or whether he will simply announce that a certain number of troops will return home by a certain date. Although some advisers had hoped that the significant progress made against al-Qaida in the past several months would allow Obama to accelerate the withdrawal, the president himself has not indicated that he is yet ready to take this gamble. (If he is, he has kept it to himself.)

Politically, justifying a more rapid drawdown in the wake of bin Laden's killing would make sense, as the stated goal of the war is to rout al-Qaida and prevent the Taliban from establishing a sanctuary for the terrorist network to regrow. As many members of Congres -- including Republicans -- regularly note now, Pakistan seems to be more of a haven for al-Qaida than Afghanistan. The budget crisis is forcing Republican hawks to take a second look at the billions spent monthly to fight a nebulous enemy in Afghanistan.

Obama ordered 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in late 2009 after taking a deep dive into the strategy pursued by President Bush. He is now confident that his strategy is the correct one, advisers say, even if the public continues to doubt it, and even though it is hard to articulate. Congress, for the most part, is likely to support the president's recommendations, even though support for the war itself is waning. Petraeus remains an iconoclastic figure and will provide cover if the president's chosen withdrawal pace is conservative.

At West Point in December 2009, Obama laid out two main goals under the broader mantle of disrupting, defeating, and dismantling al-Qaida. Coalition forces would arrest the Taliban's momentum and rigorously train the Afghan National Security Forces, holding them to a series of benchmarks and reducing attrition. Obama also disaggregated the Taliban from al-Qaida, and diplomats began a slow, often-secret reconciliation process with established Taliban tribal factions. The surge allowed the coalition to focus on populous provinces in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Obama will refer to these goals and assess progress toward them, framing them in the overall context of a full transition in Afghanistan by 2014. But even that definition is in question. It remains uncertain whether the majority of troops will be rebased by then, or whether 2014 is the starting point for a real transition.

Assessing progress is complicated. As National Journal's Yochi Dreazen reported, 2011 may turn out to be the deadliest year on record for Americans in the war. Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who sees classified and unclassified metrics on the capability of Taliban forces, doesn't seem to be sanguine in his latest report. While coalition troops have killed record numbers of Taliban fighters, discovered large weapons caches, and meaningfully enhanced both security and civil governance in certain parts of the country, the Taliban and allied forces like the Haqqani network in the Paktika province, remain potent, destabilizing forces. The insurgency has not expanded, in Cordesman's assessment, but neither has it been seriously degraded.

In April, Petraeus's staff concluded that the International Security Assistance Force "still does not fully understand the regenerative capacity of the insurgency."

As for the second main challenge - that of building a government to transition to in 2014, metrics are few, although the U.S. continues to insist that it is making progress.

But testifying before Congress, the new American ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, noted that "[e]normous challenges remain: governance; rule of law, including corruption, which undermines economic growth and the credibility of the Afghan state; narcotics; sustainable economic development, including adequate employment opportunities, increased revenues along with the capacity for the government to provide basic services, such as education and health care."

Public opinion in America turned against the war last year and support for fighting it hovers anywhere between 35 and 43 percent, according to polls taken by Pew and by ABC News and The Washington Post in late May.

Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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