FrontPage | 2.6.12
By Alan W. Dowd

Floating a trial balloon for the White House, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week that the Obama administration is planning to speed up its withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan. “By mid- to the latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role,” Panetta said. That would be a year earlier than what the Obama administration had initially proposed.

This should come as no surprise. In fact, it’s exactly what President Obama has been pushing for, itching for, advocating, from the very beginning of his administration.

Recall that in 2009, after a lengthy re-review of his own policy, the president concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

That announcement raised red flags for many observers.

First, the notion that “our vital national interest” somehow has an expiration date was nothing short of bizarre.

Second, the much-ballyhooed surge of 30,000 troops was less than what the generals asked for—Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted 40,000—and arguably never had the full impact it was designed to have. In fact, the White House was trying to get the military to accede to a faster drawdown—and arguably shorter withdrawal timetable—last July. As Defense News reported at the time, then-Defense Secretary Gates was “sparring at a distance with White House aides who are pushing for a faster drawdown of the 100,000-strong U.S. force.” Indeed, after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the president declared that “it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility.” He then ordered the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by summer 2012. Again, the military advocated a more modest reduction of between 5,000 and 10,000 troops.

Third, letting the Taliban know when the U.S. military would end its offensive only made the mission harder—and the Taliban less open to some sort of settlement.

That helps explain why a leaked U.S. military report, based on interviews of Taliban prisoners, concludes that “Taliban commanders, along with rank and file members, increasingly believe their control of Afghanistan is inevitable. Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact…they see little hope for a negotiated peace. Despite numerous tactical setbacks, surrender is far from their collective mindset.”

Regrettably, it seems the very opposite mindset is at work in Washington.

To be sure, the American people and their military should not be expected to sacrifice more for Afghanistan than the Afghan people are themselves willing to sacrifice. Moreover, it is the president’s responsibility to determine and then to do what is in America’s national interest—not what is in Hamid Karzai’s interest. In other words, sometimes the wisest, most just, most appropriate decision a president can make is to pull back and turn away.

But given what Afghanistan spawned, given the Taliban’s record, given the terror that was unleashed when Mullah Omar and his ilk were left to their own devices, it’s difficult to believe that the best course of action is to declare victory and head for home. If the U.S. and its NATO allies rush the timetable and quit Afghanistan without (1) weakening the Taliban insurgency to a level where it doesn’t threaten the central government and/or (2) building up government forces to a level where they can smother Taliban flare-ups, the result will be similar to what happened the last time the West abandoned Afghanistan. It pays to recall that after the defeat of the Red Army, Afghanistan was considered unimportant—and left to the Taliban and their fellow jihadists. Then came September 11, 2001.

To put a finer point on it, the notion that the Taliban are brutal, backward, thuggish killers who make common cause with the likes of al Qaeda simply because foreign troops are on Afghan territory is plainly not true. Before September 11, 2001, before the U.S. invasion of October 7, 2001, before the Obama administration’s truncated surge of 2009, before any foreign troops were on their soil, the Taliban were brutal, backward, thuggish killers who made common cause with the likes of al Qaeda. And today, sensing and seeing that the U.S. commitment is waning, they have gotten their second wind, not unlike a tired long-distance runner who glimpses the finish line.

The Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan Index underscores the growing strength of the Taliban and other groups waging war against the U.S. in Afghanistan:

•    The Taliban insurgency represented some 3,200 fighters in 2004 but more than 30,000 by the end of 2010.
•    Cross-border attacks by the Haqqani Network are up 500 percent.
•    Haqqani Network IED attacks are up 20 percent.
•    Assassinations have spiked from less than one per month to about 10 per month.
•    There were 155 U.S. troops killed in 2008; there were 418 killed in 2011.
•    The number of internal refugees has jumped from 150,000 to 352,000 in three years.

With statistics like these in mind, Sen. Joseph Lieberman offered a commonsense reaction to the administration’s plan to undercut its own withdrawal timetable: “This change is not justified by facts on the ground. While we all share the goal of drawing down our military presence in Afghanistan, this should be driven by developments on the ground in Afghanistan, not by the whims of Washington.”

But the president is not going to be confused by the facts on the ground. He wants U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and he wants to show the American people in this election year that he is “turning the page on a decade of war,” as he puts it.

According to Panetta, as the U.S. and NATO head for the exits, “a large civilian presence” will stay behind to keep things on track. Given that this is the very model the Obama administration is employing in Iraq—where 434 Iraqis have been killed since U.S. troops handed everything over to “a large civilian presence” 50 days ago—Panetta’s words are not particularly reassuring.