The Case for an Afghanistan Timeline
December 10, 2009
Q1: Last week President Obama announced that U.S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011. What exactly does this entail?
A1: In his speech at West Point, the president said that U.S. troops will begin to leave Afghanistan in July 2011. He did not specify the rate of withdrawal or the date by which all forces would return home.
In the days since this announcement, administration officials have sought to clarify what this approach will entail. Testifying before Congress, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates assured members that the timeline for withdrawal will be conditions-based. And National Security Adviser James Jones described the deadline as a “ramp” rather than a “cliff.” Still, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated that the date for initial troop withdrawals was firm.
Q2: Why set a timeline?
A2: The timeline is necessary to the Obama administration’s goal of transferring responsibility for governance and security to the Afghans.
Up to this point, the United States has implicitly pledged its indefinite and unconditional support to the Afghan government. This open-ended commitment has induced President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders boosted by U.S. assistance to do as little as possible to eliminate corruption and extend their writ to Taliban-controlled territory. In short, the American presence has offered Afghanistan’s ruling class security and resources while guaranteeing that someone else will tackle insurgent violence.
This is not the way to move the Afghan government toward self-sufficiency. But if the White House credibly demonstrates that its commitment is not open-ended, Karzai and other Afghan leaders will be forced to consider how they might fare without U.S. and NATO support. The potential fallout from U.S. withdrawal—Taliban advances, loss of power, and even expulsion from the country—should be enough to incentivize politicians and military officials to take responsibility for the governance and security of Afghanistan. A timeline to withdraw, then, is a blunt but necessary mechanism to push the Afghan government to reform.
Q3: Some members of Congress and the media have criticized the timeline, arguing that it will simply encourage the Taliban to lay low for the next few years. Is this a valid concern?
A3: Not really. As Secretary Gates noted in his testimony, the Obama administration would welcome this development, as it would provide U.S. and NATO forces a crucial window in which to build Afghan capacity.
On a larger level, this type of thinking implies that coalition forces should stay in Afghanistan forever. The Taliban live in Afghanistan, and insurgents will remain long after U.S. troops leave the country. The Obama administration has correctly determined that the movement cannot be defeated militarily and that any solution must include political reconciliation.
This is why the timeline is so crucial. During the next few years, U.S. and NATO troops will work to check Taliban gains. This tactical mission will serve the larger strategic goal of transferring authority to the Afghan leaders and institutions responsible for maintaining security and enforcing a difficult peace. And in order to prepare our Afghan partners for that eventual day, they must know that the U.S. commitment is not indefinite.
Q4: Are there any other reasons to implement the timeline?
A4: Yes. Fundamentally, this timeline is about narrowing U.S. objectives in South Asia. Fighting an endless war in Afghanistan to deny al Qaeda a haven there doesn’t make much sense when the group already operates safely in Pakistan. Ultimately, American policymakers will have to directly address the threat emanating from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in order to eliminate al Qaeda.
A plan for drawing down in Afghanistan can only help this aim. Growing evidence suggests that the Taliban are rejecting al Qaeda’s global terrorist agenda. Most insurgents fight to expel what they view as a foreign occupier. A workable political solution that ensures U.S. withdrawal and gives former insurgents some stake in Afghanistan’s future will free up U.S. resources for the more pressing task of targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan.
The timeline also serves America’s larger counterterrorism agenda by offsetting al Qaeda’s narrative of the United States as an occupier of Muslim countries. Because the addition of 30,000 extra troops could fuel this narrative and boost terrorist recruitment, it was particularly important that President Obama stated that the United States will leave Afghanistan.
Ultimately, a timeline ensures that the United States won’t engage in further escalation to prolong a war we should be looking to end. After eight years, it is reasonable for Americans to ask how our Afghanistan strategy leads to the destruction of al Qaeda and whether we can succeed in reversing Taliban gains and stabilizing Afghanistan. If by July 2011 we still haven’t achieved these goals, it will be time to think about other ways to ensure security in South Asia.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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