Afghan endgame unclear after Obama decision

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s decision for a partial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may ease political pressure at home, but fails to resolve the overriding dilemma of how to extricate the United States from the long war, experts said.

By (AFP)

Published: Thu 23 Jun 2011, 8:56 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 10:41 PM

In announcing onWednesday the departure of 33,000 surge troops by the summer of 2012, Obama split the difference between war hawks and skeptics but left uncertain the terms of an endgame involving a possible deal with the Taliban.

Obama’s plan addressed the military’s wish to keep the bulk of the US surge force in place through this year, while offering the start of a drawdown demanded by members of his own party.

But both sides in the debate over the war came away disappointed, accusing Obama of either abandoning the war effort or deepening an open-ended quagmire.

While the drawdown of 10,000 troops this year will likely have no dramatic effect on the ground in coming months, analysts said, the departure of the remaining 23,000 surge forces in 2012 could curtail plans to roll back the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan.

The withdrawal numbers “mean that gains made in the south of Afghanistan will be harder to maintain, and that needed operations in the east will go forward more slowly,” Danielle Pletka of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute wrote in a commentary published a day before Obama’s speech.

But for Caroline Wadhams, senior fellow at the liberal-minded Center for American Progress, the planned drawdown represents “very small numbers.”

“We will still have 70,000 US troops in Afghanistan in 2013,” double the number deployed when Obama entered office in 2009, she said.

“We’re still looking at a very large and long commitment to Afghanistan.”

The scaling back of the US footprint also appeared to signal the swan song for counter-insurgency warfare, a doctrine promoted by senior officers in the fight against militants in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The approach, requiring a massive commitment of troops and strategic “patience,” has dominated the American military for a decade, exacting a heavy human and financial toll.

Counter-insurgency strategy “is resource intensive and slow,” said Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Neither of those things are popular in democracies.”

For Wadhams, the political argument over troop levels has obscured a more vexing question that has plagued top officers and advisers for years: what is the goal of the war?

“What’s the strategy, what do we hope to achieve?” she said.

Under former president George W. Bush, US war aims amounted to forcing the Taliban to surrender.

Obama, however, has left the door open to a negotiated deal that would allow a political role for the Taliban militants, who have proved resilient after being toppled in a US invasion in 2001.

The White House has been pointedly “ambiguous” about what it deems as the minimum objectives of the war, and it is possible the administration may accept “reduced ambitions,” Biddle said.

If troop numbers are scaled back, “something’s got to give,” he said.

US officials in recent days have for the first time officially acknowledged that preliminary talks with the Taliban are underway, and Obama said Wednesday that he saw hope for progress in these contacts.

But some conservative voices warn it is too early to expect any progress at the negotiating table, and that the drawdown will spell imminent disaster, with an eventual return to civil war and Taliban sanctuaries.

That worst case scenario appears improbable, said Biddle.

Instead, an insidious stalemate, in which the Kabul government refuses to reform in time for the planned exit of US-led forces by 2015, could pose a more serious threat, he said.

In this scenario, “we signal enough impatience that we encourage more hedging and we make it impossible for ourselves to leverage reform, and hence the (Afghan) government remains as much of a basket case five years from now as it is now,” he said.

“Then what you get is slow failure.”

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