Analysis: Focus on withdrawal could jeopardize Afghan mission

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's effort Tuesday night to reassure Democrats who oppose the deployment of another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and to emphasize a U.S. exit strategy to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reform his corruption-riddled government could backfire.

The Taliban, al Qaida, their allies and their patrons in Pakistan and the Middle East, as well as America's partners, may think that Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 signals a lack of U.S. staying power and dilutes any incentives for insurgents to switch sides or negotiate a political accord.

Instead, the extremists may persevere in their fight, thinking they can run out the clock and further erode support for the war in the United States as congressional elections loom in 2010, while pumping up their own ranks. Some members of the U.S.-led international force already have announced their intention to leave.

"It's a big mistake," a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said of Obama's announcement that a U.S. withdrawal would begin in 19 months. "It just tells the Taliban and everyone else how long they need to last."

The official said the deadline also could discourage Karzai from acting on U.S. demands to crack down on high-level corruption, implement political reforms and rid the government of warlords who oversaw the rigging of his recent re-election in return for shares in the new government.

"We say we don't have a reliable partner in Kabul. They will now say that they don't have a responsible partner in Washington," said the U.S. defense official, whose apprehensions are widely shared in the U.S. military and intelligence communities.

"This is also a bold gamble in terms of domestic politics," said Bruce Riedel of The Brookings Institution, a former CIA officer and White House adviser who helped Obama draft the initial Afghanistan strategy speech he delivered in March. "His own party is increasingly divided. The liberal base is tired of (the war). The party is haunted by the ghost of Vietnam."

"I do not support the president's decision to send additional troops to fight a war in Afghanistan that is no longer in our national security interest," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

In his televised address from West Point, Obama, no longer calling Afghanistan "a war of necessity," said the deadline would encourage Karzai to assume more responsibility for running his country and the war.

"Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground," Obama said. "But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country."

Obama's reference to "conditions on the ground" suggested that the U.S. troop drawdown could be slowed or halted if conditions don't improve or if Karzai fails to clean up his government.

At the same time, Obama acknowledged the growing costs of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq at a time of financial crisis and 10.2 percent unemployment. "We simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars," he said.

Moreover, it's uncertain whether the recruiting and training of Afghan security forces can be accelerated in face of persistent problems with corruption, desertions and an ethnic imbalance that favors minorities over Pashtuns, who are the country's largest ethnic group and dominate the Taliban.

"This approach makes perfect sense in the context of American politics, where compromise is the order of the day," said a senior U.S. intelligence official with long experience in the Middle East and South Asia, speaking on the condition of anonymity to voice criticism of the president's policy. "It makes a lot less sense in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where you either win or you lose, and whoever lasts longer usually wins."

"Our enemies believe we'll always cut and run, like they say we did in Lebanon and Somalia, and by the same token, our allies don't trust us to stand with them for as long as it takes," said a senior U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the news media. "I'm afraid that this speech will ring those bells again, and they won't hear the more subtle suggestion that we won't keep withdrawing forces if things aren't improving."

Ronald Neumann, the immediate past U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, agreed that there's a "real risk" that the deadline for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal could encourage the Taliban and other insurgents to intensify the war.

Neumann added, however, that Obama couldn't avoid setting the deadline because he had to reassure Americans that the U.S. commitment isn't open-ended amid polls showing rising opposition to the war.

Obama had to address, especially, liberal Democrats, many of whom are worried about the costs of the war. Estimates put the cost of the additional 30,000 troops at $30 billion a year on top of the $68 billion spent this year. Some Democratic lawmakers have called for a special tax to ease the strain on the U.S. Treasury.

Many Democrats also think that Afghanistan is distracting the administration from addressing domestic issues such as unemployment and health care, and they worry that growing opposition to the war could cost them seats in next year's elections.

What will be crucial, said Neumann, will be the determination of Obama and his commanders in implementing the new strategy, especially when they're faced with almost certain setbacks.

"What is going to matter much, much more is the degree to which Obama over time radiates complete firmness," he said. "If he sounds like everything is always up for review, that will be a problem."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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