With his address this week, President Obama has charted a pragmatic and, yes, political, way forward in Afghanistan, announcing a drawdown of troops that is faster than some want, slower than others want. Obama ignored the advice of the nation's top military commanders, who wanted to keep more troops in Afghanistan, but his plan acknowledges the plain fact that our military mission there has to begin winding down at some point.
This is a good time to begin the transition. The military situation in Afghanistan remains delicate, but has improved with the surge Obama ordered in 2009. The death of Osama bin Laden almost certainly changes the dynamic among the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Afghan people. And the American people, themselves, are growing weary of an expensive war nearing its 10-year anniversary.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday that while he supports the Obama plan, he had recommended a less aggressive drawdown schedule.
Obama's approach adds risk to the military mission, Mullen said. But he added, "It's manageable risk."
A president is bound to weigh the desires of his countrymen in making this kind of decision. A leader makes the right choice for his country. Obama is doing both, having ordered the surge despite the misgivings of many Americans and now, putting into motion a troop withdrawal.
No doubt, election politics plays into the timetable. Obama's base and many centrists and independents believe we have spent enough blood and treasure on Afghanistan and that expending more won't appreciably change the dynamic there. Thus, the planned departure of 33,000 troops begins this year and accelerates in 2012, wrapping up two months before Election Day.
Even with that reduction, though, 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, to be gradually withdrawn until Afghans take over security in 2014. With American officials holding talks with Taliban representatives, it is possible that hand-over will be smooth. However, the Afghan army and police are far from ready and the government of President Hamid Karzai remains weak and corrupt. If those don't improve markedly, the country could fall back into chaos.
That, however, will always be the risk and Americans, by and large, aren't prepared to spend billions more dollars and hundreds more lives trying to remake a country that follows its own path.
The point of this mission was to end Afghanistan's status as a training ground for terrorist attacks, to capture or kill bin Laden and, more broadly, to ensure that other governments understand the penalty for hosting those bent on attacking this country. Those goals have largely been met.
Other risks remain, including the future of terrorist-laden, nuclear-armed Pakistan. Drawing down our troop commitment in Afghanistan need not distract us from those threats and, indeed, it must not. But the time has come to begin winding this war down. There is too little advantage in prolonging it.