Sunday, June 26, 2011

America's risky withdrawal from Afghanistan

An aggressive retreat

AS ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN, America’s most senior military officer, confirmed to the House armed services committee on June 23rd, Barack Obama’s plan to cut troop levels in Afghanistan by 10,000 this year and by a further 20,000 or so by September 2011 is a more “aggressive” drawdown than he advised. It is a decision that inevitably adds a new element of risk to realising America’s (and NATO’s) declared objective, namely to create the conditions that will allow all combat operations to be handed over to Afghan national forces by 2014. It may also have inadvertently strengthened the Taliban's hand if and when the “talks about talks”, which are now being conducted through (unreliable) intermediaries, turn into the serious political negotiations that Mr Obama says he wants to take place.

The risk that the new American commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, will have to take is whether prematurely to start reducing his forces in the south and southwest (primarily Kandahar and Helmand), where huge progress has been made since Mr Obama first ordered the 33,000 troop surge in late-2009, or whether to put fewer resources into delivering the “clear, hold and build” strategy in the east than had previously been planned. He will have to choose between asking Afghan forces to take on much of the heavy lifting in the two most fought-over provinces before they are ready to do so (putting hard-won gains in jeopardy during next year’s fighting season) or accept that it may be impossible to clear out all the pockets of violent insurgency in the east before the 2014 deadline. Mr Obama might reply that generals always want more for longer, but as Admiral Mullen said, more force for more time would have been the safer option.

There may still be a little wriggle room over the precise phasing of the drawdown, however. The concern is that if Mr Obama sticks to his goal of fully unwinding the surge by September next year (well before November’s election), it may look to the Taliban like an open invitation to try and reverse their losses of the last two years. If, on the other hand, the larger part of next year’s 23,000 drawdown is postponed until the very end of 2012, the mission is likely to be in much better shape in 2013. What is critical is that space and time for training and mentoring Afghan army recruits is not dangerously telescoped. The aim is to reach a force of 375,000 by the end of 2012 from the current 300,000. Mr Obama would only have himself to blame if, for entirely domestic political reasons, he undermines the conditions for a security transition to Afghan national forces by 2014 that still looks just about doable. His rush for the exit could yet end up delaying the very thing his is hoping for. The Economist

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