“On Track” in Afghanistan?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 17, 2010

This story informs us that the White House believes that American gains in Afghanistan are “fragile” and “reversible,” but also states that the United States is “on track” to begin removing troops from Afghanistan on July, 2011, per the Obama Administration’s initial timetable.

Of course, it really doesn’t take a genius to note that if the American position in Afghanistan is so uncertain that any gains are “fragile” and “reversible,” then it is impossible to state, with any semblance of confidence, that we can begin removing troops in any meaningful number when the Obama Administration said that we can remove them. To be sure, the Administration has stated that we aren’t just going to up and leave in the space of a month once any withdrawal occurs, and it has been pretty much established that any withdrawal will have to depend on conditions on the ground. But if that is the case, then the Administration should simply admit that the current conditions on the ground make it unwise to declare that a withdrawal can begin at a particular date certain.

The Administration should admit this, but it won’t. It won’t because any stated delay in the withdrawal will drive President Obama’s base–already disillusioned with him–positively up the wall, and cause a dramatic collapse in the already tenuous (I am being generous here) level of liberal support for the war. It won’t, because it believes that any stated delay will serve to reduce pressure on Afghan president Hamid Karzai to bring about better governance practices, and to work to ensure that Afghan security forces will be well-positioned to take over once the United States leaves (actually, any stated delay will do more to throw a wrench into the plans of the Taliban, which are waiting for the United States to leave, but let’s save a rehash of that argument for another day). It won’t because the President himself clearly wants out of Afghanistan, and won’t allow himself to be stopped, come Hell or high water.

All of this should worry us. I can understand if the Obama Administration does not want to fight this war anymore. People are tired of it. But we can either leave Afghanistan after having established the conditions that will help foster a just and honorable peace in the country, or we can leave Afghanistan in a manner that will throw the country to the wolves once again. If we were really interested in the former goal, we would have an Administration that started preparing us long ago for the possibility that any American withdrawal cannot have either its begin date, or its timeline predicted. Instead, we have an Administration that has baked into its Afghanistan review the conclusion–facts and circumstances be damned–that withdrawal will begin when the President declared that it would begin from the time that he announced his surge strategy.

About the only hope we have of making sure that there will be no precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan is that the withdrawal will be slow, and that it will actually be based on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, whatever the begin date of the withdrawal may be. But even that may be too much to ask for; Secretary Gates has stated that he wants to leave by 2011, and I highly doubt that his successor–whoever he or she may be–will have either the inclination, or political muscle to condition the withdrawal in a way that will bring about the stated American goal of leaving a secure, prosperous Afghanistan in its wake.

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