- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Former battlefield commanders are warning that President Obama’s accelerated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in time for the 2012 presidential election risks reversing major gains made against the Taliban.

“It is not only too fast a withdrawal, but too large,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who was a top adviser to Afghanistan commander Gen. David H. Petraeus and an architect of the successful 2007 troop-reinforcement in Iraq.

“Fundamentally, we will be asking the troops to do more with less, which, unfortunately, means an increase in casualties,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. Obama last month ordered the Pentagon to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and an additional 23,000 by next summer. That will leave about 70,000 U.S. troops in the country.

The president ordered a surge of about 30,000 troops in December 2009 to increase the fight against a resurgent Taliban force.

Rep. Allen B. West, Florida Republican and a retired Army combat officer, complained that Mr. Obama has ordered the troop withdrawal without linking it to conditions on the ground.

“The president just put some type of timeline on there that was not conditions-based,” said Mr. West, who held the rank of lieutenant colonel and served in Iraq.

“You have to have conditions-based operations, which dictate how you transition from phase to phase. There is no strategy which the president brought forth.”

He added that the Taliban, which imposed a brutal Islamist rule on Afghanistan and sheltered Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, already is trying to take political advantage of Mr. Obama’s withdrawal schedule. He said some tribal leaders in areas threatened by the Taliban are beginning to worry that the United States will abandon them.

“The only thing he talked about was the timeline,” Mr. West said of the president. “The Taliban has taken it and spinning it, and it has caused some concern with people in the tribal areas. Do they think this is the beginning of the end - turning our backs on them?”

However, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and another combat veteran who toured Afghanistan last week, said Mr. Obama’s announcement should not have surprised anyone.

Mr. Hunter, a Marine Reserve officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said that U.S. commanders knew Mr. Obama would start reducing troops this summer when he announced the surge a year ago. The Afghan army also is growing stronger and will be in a position a year from now to take over areas patrolled by NATO forces, he said.

“If you think in the back of your mind there was any political motivation for the drawdown and you think the timing may be off a little bit, you still knew that we were going to draw down. And if you can complete the objectives, then we can do it,” he said.

“The military guys think that they got this as long as those troops are not pulled from the main effort. As long as it’s done smartly. Nobody over there is complaining that we’re going to be drawing down and pulling back from Afghanistan, as long as we can keep the mission and then keep the homeland safe. Everybody wants to see our troops come home, including me.”

Gen. Keane had toured Afghanistan to provide one of the first independent assessments of the troop surge last year.

“Overall, we can see now that the surge forces are starting to make a difference,” he told The Times in October. “And you have to be encouraged by some of the progress that’s being made. All that said, we’re in a tough fight, and I believe we will continue to gain momentum.”

In his most recent interview with The Times, he feared the United States might lose those gains. “We will be very challenged to maintain the favorable momentum we have achieved,” he said.

A possible setback is the mission in Regional Command East, a critical war theater where insurgents and deadly bomb materials move across the Pakistan border. There, the fierce al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network operates, crossing into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and Afghan government troops.

Gen. Keane said a main thrust of the surge strategy in 2012 is to go after that network of militants. This major fight now will take place as thousands of American surge troops are leaving.

“It remains to be seen whether we will have sufficient force ratios to dominate in the east the way we have in the south during the last 15 months,” he said.

Mr. West recently returned from a tour of forward operating bases in Afghanistan, where he had served as a civilian military adviser to Afghan government troops in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

Mr. West said there are still areas in the southwest not controlled by the allies where the Taliban retreats and then counterattacks. Fewer forces raise the risks of many such safe havens.

“The No. 1 thing we have to do is deny this enemy sanctuaries, to dry up his holes where he can find an opportunity to recruit, to train, to get supplies,” he said.

“And what I saw there are some places where the tribal leadership and locals are turning against them, but then that’s because we have been able to get out into the countryside a whole lot better than previously.”

He added that he is concerned the decisions made for “political expediency or haste” could reverse the gains made since the surge.

Some of the worry stems from the fact that Mr. Obama’s troop-withdrawal timetable was not one of the options recommended by Gen. Petraeus or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

An anonymous White House official briefing reporters on the president’s June 22 speech insisted that the withdrawal plan was among the options presented by the military.

Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, the man tapped to replace Gen. Petraeus, who is to become CIA director, contradicted the White House at a recent Senate hearing.

“It is the prerogative of the president to take the recommendations of his commanders and to make the decision,” Gen. Allen said. “And he made that decision, and we are executing it.”

The Pentagon’s congressionally required status report on Afghanistan remained somewhat pessimistic in November. But the latest report in April was more upbeat, declaring: “Taliban Influence Is Decreasing.”

“These efforts have driven insurgents out of key population centers in the south, cleared safe havens that the enemy possessed for years, and disrupted its networks and plans,” the Pentagon said.

Afghanistan’s national army, troubled by high illiteracy rates and attrition, is supposed to reach nearly 171,000 by year’s end. The NATO timetable calls for it and a national police force of 134,000 to assume all counterinsurgency missions by 2014.

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