Asserting that the country that served as a base for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks no longer represented a terrorist threat to the United States, Mr. Obama declared that the “tide of war is receding.” And in a blunt recognition of domestic economic strains, he said, “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
Mr. Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The remaining 20,000 troops from the 2009 “surge” of forces would leave by next summer, amounting to about a third of the 100,000 troops now in the country. He said the drawdown would continue “at a steady pace” until the United States handed over security to the Afghan authorities in 2014.
Essentially, as shown above, US forces will come down from the Afghanistan Surge first over the coming year, then gradually drawdown from 50,000 or so until the expected 2014 pullout date. As one can see above, however, the 2012 position (after this drawdown) will still be twice as large as the in-country military effort prior to the Obama administration. There is still a lot to work with, military resource-wise, in Afghanistan.
What does this mean for Afghanistan? First, it means that the US has met the minimum essential criteria for strategic level “success” in Afghanistan. Below is the pertinent text from President Obama’s West Point speech outlining the Afganistan Surge on December 1, 2009, which helps for analysis of accomplishment of specified objectives:
These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.
We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban’s momentum and increase Afghanistan’s capacity over the next 18 months…
Second, we will work with our partners, the UN, and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security…
Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan…
These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.
In Afghanistan’s case, Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear to have been mitigated to this point of strategic irrelevance, which is the essential point to our strategy as detailed above. Osama bin Laden is dead and the US has the initiative in the Af-Pak region. Moreover, the issue is one of cost: Afghanistan cost the US $120 billion last year alone, grossly disproportionate to Afghanistan’s relative strategic value.
What was accomplished in Afghanistan? Is it any different? This question is a tough one to answer, because Afghanistan will never be a war in which parades will jubilantly celebrate “V-A” Day as we saw at the end of the two theaters in World War II. Despite the imperfections (polite term applied) of the Karzai government, there are some demonstrable humanitarian advances that we can be proud of, which Secretary of State Clinton spoke of the other day:
At the Senate hearing, Mrs. Clinton cited a large increase in school enrollment — from 900,000 boys under the Taliban to more than 7 million students today, 40 percent of them girls — and a 22 percent decrease in infant mortality. “Despite the many challenges that remain, life is better for most Afghans,” she said.
Afghanistan was always a problem to be mitigated and reduced to a level of strategic insignificance. It was never to be solved. It is part of a larger trend President Obama seems to be embracing ~ the shift in US global effort to the Asia Pacific. As President Obama recognized that it was important to move from a European-centric G8 to the more appropriate G20 configuration (decidedly more “Asian”), and considering his background in Hawaii and Indonesia (even speaking Indonesian) ~ it is natural that the US is well-primed to adjust to this global reality in his administration. It may involve more temporary risk to the volatile goals the US has tentatively secured in Afghanistan, but continued “evolution” (slow process!) to a new realignment with greater relative focus on the Asia-Pacific is necessary. To not do so would be the riskier foreign policy option.