President Obama has a difficult set of options to choose from in his effort to draw down our troops in Afghanistan and at the same time leave that country in a responsible way — but as soon as can be managed. He needs to provide for regional stability and security which is a vital interest of this nation given the nuclear weapons in Pakistan. The latter is the elephant in the room that only a few commentators are talking about or addressing seriously.
The fact of the matter is that a lot of pure right-wing hawks are wrong in their criticism of Obama’s “moderate” decision and their push for an “endless war.” They have shown blindness to the difficult situation in Afghanistan and the need for an “end point” in our present strategy. But a lot of doves are wrong in not dealing honestly with alternative policies and consequences to address the realistic threats to our regional and global security.
Obama’s speech was short and, frankly, a bit vague on specifics and broad policy. I suspect that the administration is still now trying to assess their options and work the diplomatic front. They want to keep, for a time, some of their leverage in the region. They fear, rightly, a form of high instability, chaos, and dangers in the region. They fear what has been described as “precipitous withdrawal,” as opposed to a steady withdrawal related to “facts on the ground,” which is a phrase that the military uses, and leaving with some hope that a kind of stable governance and security can be created. Some silliness has recently been written about the Nixon withdrawal or retreat – choose your own words – in Vietnam as a model. But the main concern remains that Pakistan does not fall into a terrorist playground and worse.
My judgment is that Obama chose the least worst option while keeping his promise to make a significant drawdown and was firm about the next stages of that action. The military wanted just 3,000 to leave at the end of the year and the doves wanted an almost impossible 30,000. They got that and a bit more for the end of 2012.
That gives America time to continue to keep pressure on the Taliban and Al -Qaeda. The military can continue to try to establish areas of security and perhaps a bit of local government and still train a poor yet slightly more effective army and police. Those who think that will never occur reasonably want out, but they fail to acknowledge the price of that simple withdrawal option on our larger interests in the region, which go far beyond Afghanistan itself.
The hawks are making an impossible case with their idea that we can keep largely 100,000 combat troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. They are either crazy or they are playing politics and especially trying to bring Obama down on the war issue with our national security and the lives of our soldiers at stake. There is little doubt that we do not need that number on the ground if we are seeking reasonable stability and preventing terrorists to freely attack us or our allies from Afghanistan. Obama, I believe, understands that but is looking at what can only be described as a most complex and dangerous region still at a crossroad and wants to act with great care. His approach has shown great caution against acting hastily and keeping his options open.
That may not be a bad approach, but it remains for the moment still inadequate until a strategy and consequent policies and actions are taken to implement a wider resolution to the region’s dangers. This means a “full court press” on establishing a regional settlement that addresses the conflicting motivations and concerns of the regional actors.
The critics are right, however, that the present Afghanistan government is corrupt and is probably the largest stumbling block to some kind of national reconciliation and reasonable government authority. It is not likely to be better than what we see today without some radical “re-engendering.” And I am not sure that we can create this by 2014. But the reality is we need a strategy that gets us to some measure of security in the region and has us withdraw our combat forces in a deliberate but steady way as we set in place our creative diplomacy to create some reasonable security and political order.
By Harry C. Blaney III.