The White House plan to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is more political than military strategy. Whether it improves President Obama’s chances of being re-elected depends largely on whether the Taliban think he should have a second term.
In December 2009, the president said troop withdrawals from Afghanistan would begin in July 2011, and so they will. That original deadline Mr. Obama set was arbitrary, and there is currently no military rationale for the troop drawdown. Violence and casualties are on the upswing in the country, and the gains made during the Afghan surge are not durable. Mr. Obama claims he is making his decision from a position of strength, but it involves accepting a considerable amount of risk.
The key test of the White House strategy will come if or when the situation in Afghanistan grows markedly worse. The working assumption seems to be that the troop drawdown can be accomplished without a corresponding resurgence of the Taliban. This belief is at odds with experience. Typically, insurgents will retreat before superior forces but reemerge when those forces depart. If the underlying factors that necessitated the surge in the first place haven’t been dealt with, the Taliban are certain to reestablish their previous positions once American forces depart.
The second and third order consequences of the “beginning of the end” announcement are also not promising. The signal to coalition partners with fewer interests involved in Afghanistan is that it’s a good time for them to think about leaving. To the Taliban, it says that if they keep the pressure up, they can wait out the foreign forces. To the Afghan people, it says that they will soon be on their own, and it is time to start cutting whatever side deals they need in order to survive.
The political risk for Mr. Obama will be evident a year from now, assuming conditions in Afghanistan worsen. At that point, he can either let the situation continue to degrade, which would be bad news for his re-election campaign, or send the troops back in to stabilize the situation, which will also hurt him at the polls. The only way Mr. Obama can escape this lose-lose situation is if everything goes perfectly in Afghanistan between now and the election, which is highly doubtful. Thus, he is placing a portion of his political future in the hands of the Taliban, if they are smart enough to realize it.
The most unfortunate line in Mr. Obama’s speech on Wednesday was, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” It does not do well for the White House to imply that the United States is a failed state in need of reconstruction, particularly since the Obama administration hasn’t shown any particular aptitude for it. If Mr. Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan were more successful, the situation there wouldn’t be so dire. Likewise, administration attempts at domestic “nation-building” like the stimulus program failed to meet their promised objectives and may have made conditions worse.
Mr. Obama should be very cautious in using the imagery of “nation-building” as increasing numbers of Americans begin thinking about 2012 as an opportunity for regime change.