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The case for a slow pullout

Many Americans probably wonder why President Obama didn't call last week for a bigger troop pullout from Afghanistan.

Having recently returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think he could have made a stronger case for his decision to bring home only 10,000 troops by the end of this year. (The rest of the 33,000 "surge" troops he has deployed will return no later than September 2012, with a full transition to Afghan security control supposedly occurring by 2014.)

The public needs more details to grasp why a slow exit is preferable to just bringing the troops home.

Anyone can understand why the American public is getting restless -- 10 years after we invaded Afghanistan. Our economy sags as we continue to spend $10 billion a month for the military operation. Public confusion is compounded by the fact that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a Pakistani military town, not on some Afghan mountain. Meantime, senior administration officials say there's no sign that transnational terrorists are using Afghanistan as a launch pad.

So why are we still in Afghanistan at all?

The president explains that our goal is to stabilize the country sufficiently to prevent al-Qaida and its allies from re-establishing bases there. Yet many Americans question the seriousness of this threat, or why we can't prevent it with drones or Special Forces, rather than regular soldiers.

Here's what I think Obama could have added to his explanation to make a stronger case.

First, the threat: Yes, it's true that the post-bin Laden core of al-Qaida is hiding in Pakistan (while affiliated groups operate in Yemen and elsewhere). But al-Qaida's militant allies, including some Afghan Taliban groups, highly dangerous Pakistani Taliban, and some foreign elements, have set up safe havens in the provinces of Afghanistan that border Pakistan.

Too rapid a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan could further destabilize Pakistan. It would also undermine U.S. military plans to focus more on clearing jihadis from eastern Afghanistan after solidifying military gains in the south.

Second, the exit strategy: The administration recognizes that Afghan stability can't be achieved by military force. But no one has figured out how to reach a political solution that will end the fighting.

The administration, along with the Afghan government, has put out feelers to the Afghan Taliban to see if some groups would contemplate a deal short of returning to full power. This is a delicate dance, and the odds of success will be even slimmer if the Taliban feel they are under no military pressure. Without a negotiated solution, a civil war is likely.

Third, the transition: Congressional leaders, such as Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who call for a more rapid transition from U.S. to Afghan security control are living in a dream world. Despite impressive U.S. training efforts -- which really ramped up only during the last 18 months -- the Afghan army and police are nowhere near ready for prime time.

Were political talks to begin, were the level of violence to decrease, the Afghan army might be able to take control of some of the country more quickly. If they are left alone too soon they are likely to crumble. This is probably not something the president wants to admit, but it is true.

The decision on how fast to leave Afghanistan must be based on our security needs; I think there is a strong argument for drawing down surely but slowly. I just wish the president had made the case in a way that was more compelling and clear.