Is the U.S. Poised to Speed Afghan Withdrawal?

After two bruising years in Afghanistan, the Obama administration appears poised to hasten the U.S. departure from the increasingly troubled war


Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Reuters

Members of the Obama administration today made the latest indication of a policy shift in Afghanistan that the White House has been signalling for several months: the U.S. is planning to hasten its withdrawal from the 9-year war. This latest move came in the form of anonymous comments by "national security officials" and "senior administration officials" to the New York Times. The trend, which has made accelerated withdrawal the unstated but largely consistent position of the White House, is an implicit acknowledgement of how little progress has been made since President Obama laid out his "surge" strategy in December 2009.

According the Times, administration officials cited "the rising cost of the war" -- 499 U.S. fatalities in 2010, the bloodiest year so far -- and the death of Osama bin Laden. Operationally, bin Laden played little role in the Afghan war's fighting, though his death provides important political cover for both the U.S. and the Taliban to seek peace. Implicit in those officials' concerns about the cost of the war is how that costs measures against the perceived benefit. Those costs have been rising steadily, and the measurable benefits decreasing, since October 2010.

The war's disintegration began not in Afghanistan but across the border in Pakistan. Three things happened, all in the early days of that month: Pakistan, outraged over a NATO helicopter incursion into its territory, closed an important border crossing with Afghanistan, shutting off much of the U.S.-led missions' supplies; militants in Pakistan suddenly and with surprising precision began attacking NATO convoy; and the Wall Street Journal reported that members of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence were violently coercing Taliban members to avoid peace deals and continue fighting in Afghanistan. Though the border crossing reopened, the trend of outward Pakistani hostility has continued.

The U.S. still has no good options for resolving Pakistan's aggressive efforts against peace. The least unattractive response may be disentangling the heavy U.S. reliance on its Pakistani partnership -- something that has become increasingly popular among U.S. journalists and analysts since the discovery of bin Laden under apparent Pakistani protection a few miles from the country's equivalent of West Point. But the only way to truly change this is by withdrawing from the Afghan war, which is both the primary reason for the U.S.-Pakistan partnership and the single greatest source of U.S.-Pakistan conflict.

Both Pakistan and the U.S. appear increasingly ready for a new reality without one another. Pakistan has made a great show of soliciting China's military and economic stewardship -- something China would welcome as a way to pressure India, a rising mutual rival. The U.S., for its part, is repositioning both its Afghan war effort and its domestic politics for an Afghan withdrawal. The recently announced senior staff shake-up, which appoints Afghan war chief General David Petraeus at the helm of the CIA and current Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense, will re-engineer the American security complex for near-constant low-level war. Today's New York Times story, the latest indication that the White House is rethinking its commitment in South Asia, comes after months of news stories about the U.S. willingness to engage in peace talks with the Taliban.

Whether or not the Obama administration is committed to hastening the war's end -- something Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposes, and which could complicate Obama's reelection bid -- remains to be seen. But the White House certainly appears to be laying the political groundwork for this option. If current trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue, Obama may well have no choice.