Obama’s Plans for Afghanistan: Reactions Wrap-up
President Barack Obama’s June 22, 2011 address to the nation confirmed that the decision he made in 2009 to send an additional 33,000 troops into Afghanistan was by no means an open-ended commitment. Starting in July, the United States will begin removing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan, with a further commitment to bring home the additional 23,000 troops by next summer. Reflecting that the United States’ mission in Afghanistan will change from combat to support, troop withdrawals will progress at a steady place until 2014. It is anticipated that by this time Afghanistan will be responsible for its own security.
Despite claiming that the drawdown was beginning from a “position of strength,” Obama warned that al Qaida remained dangerous. The President also emphasized that troop withdrawals were merely the beginning of American efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. The next phase of the transition will be shaped in May 2012, when the President hosts a summit with NATO allies and other partners. The summit is likely to form part of Obama’s commitment to a political settlement that reconciles all sections of Afghan society, up to and including the Taliban.
In return for an Afghan government-led peace process, Obama offered to build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. While the United States will not police the streets and mountains of Afghanistan indefinitely, it will continue to target terrorists and offer support to a sovereign Afghan government. Obama also stressed the importance of Pakistan to the stability of the region. To safeguard recent gains, the United States will continue to work with the Pakistani government to root out extremism and terrorism.
Like it, or not
Obama’s plans for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan received a mixed response from politicians. Many questioned the size and pace of the draw down. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) was concerned that the President’s decisions were made without consideration of the conditions on the ground or advice from senior military figures. Mckeon branded the proposed troop withdrawals as aggressive and potentially jeopardizing hard won gains made over the past eighteen months. The pace of withdrawal also risks a negotiated settlement with reconcilable elements of the Taliban, who may wait out the departure of US troops before returning to their strongholds.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) echoed Mckeon’s concerns by emphasizing that military commanders have repeatedly said the situation in Afghanistan remains fragile. McCain attributed this to the fact that it had only been in the past 18 months that strategy and resources within Afghanistan had been at the right level. He also dismissed concerns that the electorate was war-weary and fed up with an unsustainable national debt by declaring that United States could not afford to fail in Afghanistan.
Joe Lieberman (D-CT) thinks that beginning the withdrawal in the middle of Afghanistan’s fighting season puts recently-made gains in jeopardy. A more appropriate time to begin the drawing down of troops would be October, when the fighting season ends. Lieberman also suggested waiting until the end of next year’s fighting season to begin the full withdrawal of the remaining surge forces, a task which could be achieved by late 2012 or early 2013.
Despite the concerns of some of the heavyweights, other politicians appeared to voice their approval. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) agreed that US troops should leave Afghanistan by 2014. This would create a sense of urgency within the Afghan government to get its act together. Hagan was joined by Republican Senator Richard Burr, in giving tacit approval for Obama’s plans. Burr was hopeful that the President had struck a balance between building on progress made in Afghanistan as a result of the surge and handing responsibility for security to the Afghan government.
The debate continued the following day when the House Armed Services Committee considered Obama’s address and heard the opinion of Admiral Mike Mullen:
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The American press was also concerned with terms of the troop withdrawal. The New York Times believed Obama’s speech lacked substance for an American public concerned about the human and material cost of the war in Afghanistan. In direct contrast with senior politicians, the paper predicted that the size and pace of the troop withdrawal was unlikely to satisfy many Americans. President Obama also failed to fully elaborate why it is in the United States’ strategic interest to stay in Afghanistan for another three years. Reassurance would still be required to demonstrate that his withdrawal plan would not allow al Qaida or the Taliban to re-establish a grip on Afghanistan.
The Washington Times predicted that the withdrawal would lead to Afghanistan taking on new significance as a base to launch attacks against militants in Pakistan. As Pakistan prohibits American troops on its soil, Washington has relied on covert CIA unmanned aircraft strikes on al Qaida and Taliban fighters hiding in the border area with Afghanistan. However, widespread Pakistani opposition to drone strikes threatens the United States’ campaign. Indeed opposition increased in the days after the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Allies Piggy Back
President Obama’s timetable to withdraw 33,000 troops was welcomed by some European leaders. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy endorsed Obama’s announcement and declared that France would begin a phased pullback of its troops, proportionate to the US withdrawal. The move was also welcomed by David Cameron, who intends to withdraw all British troops by 2014. However, The Telegraph newspaper echoed its American counterparts by voicing concerns with the pace and scope of the US withdrawal. The paper claims that Obama has taken a serious gamble in the face of senior officers who claim troop numbers in Afghanistan should remain robust. With election year looming, The Telegraph also questioned whether Obama was putting political expediency above success on the ground in Afghanistan.
Germany’s Der Spiegel highlighted that the motives for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan are similar in both Berlin and Washington. Germany’s mission in Afghanistan is unpopular, with two-thirds of the public wanting the operation to end. Political expediency is likely to fuel Germany’s plan to reduce its contingent of around 5,000 soldiers, plus a flexible reserve of 350, in the winter of 2011. Indeed the political clamor for a German withdrawal may have been inadvertently started by Obama. During Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent to visit to Washington, the President let his German counterparts know about his plans. The Chancellor and her staff anticipated that the announcement would spark calls for a similar move by the Bundeswehr.
Yet Der Spiegel also points out that Germany’s Defense and Foreign Ministries share the same concerns as senior US officers: that an excessive troop withdrawal was unrealistic given the tense security situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Experts were also concerned that Obama’s announcement could be interpreted by other NATO states to hastily withdraw their troops ahead of 2014. As a result, decisions made were based purely on political considerations that failed to reflect the current situation in Afghanistan.
In keeping with those politicians who approve of Obama’s withdrawal plans, there have also been more pragmatic interpretations of the next phase of the transition in Afghanistan. Far from seeing Pakistan as problematic, Stratfor predicts that Islamabad will continue to need Washington as an ally, as much as Washington needs Islamabad. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan completely changes Pakistan’s security concerns. Without the heavy US presence on its western flank, Pakistan loses some of its strategic depth vis-a-vis India. The US price for safeguarding this is Pakistan’s assistance in ensuring that the draw down runs as smoothly as possible. This will take the shape of Pakistan acting as an intermediary with the Taliban. Going into the final phase of the NATO campaign in Afghanistan, the one certainty is that Pakistan remains integral to the outcome.