In the face of an unpopular war and an upcoming re-election campaign, President Barack Obama addressed the American people last night from the East Room of the White House to inform them of his plans to rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The President’s decision, though politically expedient, jeopardizes the successes made in Afghanistan over the last 10 months and will signal to allies and enemies alike that the United States is more committed to extricating itself from the fight than it is to ensuring that stability in the region is achieved.
The President’s decision to bring home 10,000 troops by the end of this year and a total of 33,000 troops by next summer comes despite requests from the Pentagon and General David Petraeus to limit the initial withdrawal to 3,000 to 4,000, as the L.A. Times reports. And as The Washington Post writes this morning, the President’s decision isn’t based in a “convincing military or strategic rationale.” Rather, it is “at odds with the strategy adopted by NATO, which aims to turn over the war to the Afghan army by the end of 2014.”
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) also criticized the President’s decision to move for a rapid withdrawal, noting that “as our military commanders have repeatedly said, this progress remains fragile.”
I am concerned that the withdrawal plan that President Obama announced tonight poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan and to the decisive progress that must still be made. This is not the “modest” withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated.
The Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Curtis writes that apart from denying his military commanders flexibility to determine the pace and scope of withdrawal based on conditions on the ground, the President “also risks upending the major achievement of eliminating Osama bin Laden across the border in Pakistan.”
Killing bin Laden, though, was one justification the President cited as grounds for pulling out troops, in effect declaring victory before the war is even over. That move comes with significant risks, Curtis writes:
It is short-sighted to use bin Laden’s death as justification for hastening the U.S. troop draw down in Afghanistan. Announcing rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces will likely bolster the morale of the Taliban and encourage them to stick with the fight. Since al-Qaeda has not yet dissolved as an organization and its relationship with the Taliban remains strong, reducing military pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan could benefit al-Qaeda and provide it a lifeline at a critical juncture in the fight against terrorism.
The withdrawal plan will signal to both our Afghan allies and enemy forces that the U.S. is more committed to withdrawing its forces than the long-term goal of stabilizing the country. The U.S. made a grave error in turning its back on Afghanistan after the Soviets departed in 1989. President Obama’s speech will stoke fears that the U.S. is getting ready to repeat a similar mistake.
Instead, though, the President is patting himself on the back for a job well done, even though the job is not finished. But rather than ensure that America finishes the job it started in Afghanistan–a mission intended to protect the American people from the threat of al-Qaeda’s terrorists bent on ripping apart this country’s foundation–President Obama articulated what he sees as the U.S. government’s primary purpose: not to secure the homeland but to create government-backed programs to spur the economy and fund research for green energy:
Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy.
Nation-building at home might be the President’s ideal job, but he has a responsibility abroad. As Curtis notes, the President’s decision to rapidly withdraw from Afghanistan will “further discourage Pakistan from cracking down on the Taliban leadership that finds sanctuary on its soil” and “reinforce Islamabad’s calculation that the U.S. is losing resolve in the fight in Afghanistan and thus encourage Pakistani military leaders to continue to hedge on support to the Taliban to protect their own national security interests.”
The United States is combating terrorism in Afghanistan to keep it from reverting to a safe haven for terrorists like those who struck on September 11, 2001. While U.S. troops have achieved successes in the region, their sacrifices could be squandered under a hasty withdrawal that is calculated for political gain, not for victory on the battlefield. The President ought to act based on the conditions on the ground and the advice of his military commanders — not on an electoral timeline.