- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama is expected to announce tonight the first phase of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, making good on his self-imposed July 2011 deadline. The White House will contend that this is being done from a position of strength, but the Taliban will spin it as an ignominious U.S. retreat.

This week, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates confirmed that preliminary steps are being taken to begin negotiations with the Taliban. He said reconciliation talks “are not likely to be able to make any substantive headway until at least this winter” because “the Taliban have to feel themselves under military pressure, and begin to believe that they can’t win before they’re willing to have a serious conversation.” In this context, the troop withdrawal announcement is poorly timed. In the Taliban’s world, a force never retreats when it has the upper hand, and it will be more difficult to reach out to the enemy when they believe America is at a disadvantage.

The casualty numbers make the White House interpretation of events a hard sell. Coalition casualties last year were about 12 times what they were in 2004. American combat fatalities more than doubled during Mr. Obama’s first year in office, and the trend has been upward since. In the first five months of 2011, U.S. fatalities are up more than 11 percent over the same period in 2010. By contrast, casualties in Iraq peaked in 2007, the year the “surge” strategy was implemented, and were down 84 percent two years later. Those numbers more convincingly supported the argument that the troops could be drawn down in Iraq because the mission was accomplished.

The only reason for the drawdown is the arbitrary deadline Mr. Obama set when he announced the Afghan troop buildup over 18 months ago. Perhaps he believed at the time that July 2011 was distant enough that the same dynamics that were seen in Iraq would come into play and the security situation would be under control. This didn’t happen, but even though violence has increased in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is stubbornly clinging to his original deadline. It’s not a decision based on military necessity but a political face-saving gesture.

The Americans and the Taliban share an important common goal. The Taliban’s No. 1 objective is for coalition troops to leave Afghanistan, and the White House would desperately like to make that happen. There are also important asymmetries at play, however. The Taliban cannot defeat NATO troops on the battlefield, and NATO cannot eliminate the Taliban threat so long as they have a safe haven in Pakistan. This creates a stalemate, but one that favors the Taliban because both sides know that sooner or later the foreign troops will leave. Time is on the enemy’s side, and the Obama administration’s long-term pullout timetable, whatever it may be, only reinforces the point that all the Taliban have to do is wait us out.

Mr. Gates was correct in saying the Taliban won’t enter into serious negotiations until they believe they can’t win. But if NATO has not been able to defeat the Taliban with its current force levels, the enemy will feel even less threatened as American troops begin to pack up and leave. Tonight, Mr. Obama is switching on the light at the end of their tunnel.

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