DANGER ROOMThese are the emerging contours of the Afghanistan debate. Backing a quicker withdrawal: the White House; NATO; two out of three major Republican presidential candidates; Afghan President Hamid Karzai; and (um) the Taliban. Against a quicker withdrawal: the U.S. military and a handful of GOP legislators.
- March 15, 2012 |
- 11:11 am |
Army Sgt. David Banks helps conduct a cordon and search operation in Pana, Afghanistan. Photo: U.S. Army
Widespread local protests may not have emerged after Sunday’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians. But the shootings, the latest in a series of crises, have reopened a debate about the wisdom of sticking with President Obama’s 2014 timetable for bringing (most) troops home. And it’s occurring at an opportune moment: NATO and the White House are currently determining just how fast and how deep the withdrawals should be over the next two years.
The military wants to slow Obama’s roll. In his only interview since the massacre, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, argued that the “solid” war plan “does not contemplate at this time, any form of accelerated drawdown.” After the surge troops leave in October, Allen, who will testify to Congress next week, reportedly wants to delay additional cuts to the 68,000-troop force until late 2013.
He has few allies for that argument.
President Hamid Karzai on Thursday called for Allen’s forces to turn over combat duties to Afghan soldiers and police next year. The U.S.’ NATO allies want that to happen: at NATO headquarters in Brussels, several alliance officials believe all the heavy lifting for the transition can be done by mid-2013. For its part, the Taliban announced on Thursday it’s suspending peace talks until the U.S. clarifies its positions on departing.
The White House publicly says that it’s content to stick with the plan to turn over combat to the Afghans in 2014. But several White House officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, believe the large U.S. presence has become counterproductive and the residual tasks for Americans — training Afghans, counterterrorism strikes and raids — can be accomplished with fewer troops. Oh, and there’s a presidential election coming up in a climate where 54 percent of Americans want out of Afghanistan faster than Obama has proposed.
There’s an opportunity for Obama, NATO and Karzai to tweak the withdrawal. NATO will meet in Chicago — which just happens to be the nexus of Obama’s reelection campaign — in May. There, the alliance will decide how to structure the drawdown through 2014, and what a residual commitment to Afghanistan of troops and cash will look like afterward. The buzz is that the alliance is unlikely to announce its schedules for troop withdrawal. But look to see if NATO describes 2013 as the crucial year for the transition, which will herald a front-loaded withdrawal.
If so, NATO may have to look for a new commander. But Allen doesn’t have many allies outside of the military and the Pentagon to bolster his call for a slower withdrawal. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is one. On the Hill, he can rely on Rep. Buck McKeon, the GOP chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; McKeon’s Senate counterpart John McCain; and McCain’s ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, “If I gotta pick between Joe Biden and General Allen, I’m picking General Allen.”
Not many others will. The Democratic Party reluctantly embraced the Afghanistan war as a cudgel against President Bush and the Iraq war; both of which are memories now. The Republican Party never turned the Afghanistan war into an ideological issue, which helps explain why the two conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, feel free to envision a faster withdrawal.
Romney has little political choice but to oppose whatever Obama decides. But Romney doesn’t emphasize Afghanistan on the campaign trail, except to say that he wants “victory,” something that few in Washington have ever bothered to define during a decade of war.
The generals don’t actually embrace “victory.” At this late hour, all they want is to delay troop reductions — not reverse them, which would retain U.S. ownership of the war. All commanders want more troops to prosecute their campaigns. Allen just doesn’t want fewer, for as long as possible. That says a lot, barometrically, about the contours of the Afghanistan debate.
The military was able to rally a reluctant president to triple troop levels in 2009 and 2010. But judging from its paltry support, the brass may not be able to slow the drawdown.