What Obama's Withdrawal Plan Means for the Afghan War

He plans to withdraw all 33,000 "surge" troops by the end of next summer

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In a nationally televised address last night, President Obama announced that he would withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and all 33,000 "surge" troops by the end of next summer, in a speedier pullout than some military commanders had suggested. He argued that the U.S. is meeting its goals in the country, made the case for "targeted" military action (read Libya) when large-scale deployment isn't necessary, and declared that, as the U.S. faces a mounting debt and a reeling economy, it's time to "focus on nation building here at home."

The speech has already elicited reaction from global stakeholders. The Taliban demanded, in a rare English-language statement, that foreign troops withdraw immediately and dismissed Obama's plan as symbolic, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed the plan and promised that "the people of Afghanistan will be protecting their homeland."  French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, announced that its 4,000 troops in Afghanistan (the U.S. has 100,000) would leave on a similar timetable. What are analysts saying about what Obama's speech means for the war in Afghanistan?

  • A 'Pivot Point': Doyle McManus at The Los Angeles Times calls the speech a "pivot point, both in U.S. strategy and in the politics of the war at home." Obama, he says, is shifting from increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan to bringing them home, and from striving to build democracy and defeat the Taliban in the country, as President Bush wanted, to preventing Afghanistan from serving as a safe haven for terrorism directed at the U.S.and striking a deal with the Taliban. "If Afghans on both sides conclude that the United States is leaving the battlefield, and the Taliban resurges, the president's choice this week won't look brilliant," McManus writes. "But if the U.S. military's assessments of the Taliban are accurate, that's not likely to happen."
  • A Blow to Counterinsurgency: The Washington Post argues in an editorial that the swift withdrawal could sabotage the counterinsurgency plan Obama adopted in 2009, which requires U.S. and allied forces to "hold the areas in southern Afghanistan that have been cleared of the Taliban through this summer's fighting season as well as that of 2012" and to "sweep eastern provinces that have not yet been reached by the counterinsurgency campaign." The Post adds that Obama's deadline may make it harder to negotiate with the Taliban, who "may prefer to wait out a retreating enemy," convince Pakistan to sever ties with the Taliban, and persuade U.S. allies to stay the course. Instead, the paper concludes, Obama appears to be distancing himself from an unpopular war of the 2012 presidential election. Similarly, military experts tell The New York Times that it's the 23,000 troops leaving in next year's summer fighting season that worries them the most.
  • A Blow to Foreign Aid: Alistair Scrutton at Reuters points out that while the troop withdrawal is grabbing all the headlines, that process "is likely to be accompanied by cuts in billions of dollars of civilian aid, bringing a precipitous shift of control many fear could tip the country into further corruption and chaos," even though America's intention is to "wean Afghanistan off foreign aid to form a sustainable state."
  • A Recognition of 'Absurdity': Obama, writes Andrew Bacevich at The Daily Beast, understands "that the outcome of the war in Afghanistan will not determine the course of events in the 21st century. What happens in China or India, Europe or Russia is of far greater importance to our well-being. So there is something fundamentally absurd about a cash-strapped nation spending more than $100 billion per year in hopes of pacifying a country that lacks a legitimate government and that views Americans as unwelcome infidels."
  • A Balancing Act: We should interpret Obama's decision, The Wall Street Journal's Carol E. Lee writes, as "a gamble that that he can balance two competing realities: demands from the Pentagon that he leave enough boots on the ground to finish the job, and demands from Congress and the American public that he end the longest war in the nation's history."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.