President Obama changes direction on Afghanistan, again

President Obama was sharply critical of the Bush administration for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan; with his rapid drawdown of forces and funding announced last night, President Obama now deserves the same criticism.

President Obama has ordered a reduction of 10,000 troops by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end of 2012, and they will "continue coming home at a steady pace" through 2014, when "the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." He argued success on the battlefields of Afghanistan and elsewhere allow us to fight in a new way -- a new way from 18 months ago, which was the last time he changed direction -- and to focus on nation building at home instead of abroad.

Make no mistake: the president's choices went against the advice of both the war's military leadership and Secretary Gates' recommendations. Understanding the deference the American public has for our military's judgment on the wars, the White House is aggressively trying to spin the president's policy as supporting our military commanders and as a gradual reduction in the force. Neither of those are true.

President Obama's drawdown announced tonight is more than six times the reduction recommended by our military leaders and endorsed by Secretary Gates. The military leadership advocated withdrawing only 3,000-5,000 staff and support troops before 2013, so that front line fighting forces would be able to consolidate gains in the south and take the fight to the last of the Taliban strongholds in the east.

Drawing down troop levels before the objectives are met will increase strain on the forces fighting in Afghanistan. It will increase the risk they run by stretching them thinner across the demands, and it will likely increase the time it takes them to achieve the objectives, putting the president's 2014 conclusion of the war in doubt. It will put diplomats and development experts operating in Afghanistan at greater risk, too. And it will reignite concern by governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that we are more concerned about the exit than the strategy.

It was the president's political advisors that advocated withdrawals of 15,000-30,000 troops -- and the president decided on the highest number of their high numbers. They see high levels of public dissatisfaction with the duration of the war and have suddenly realized the war is expensive (although the costs have not increased over projections from 18 months ago, when the president approved this policy). Given how little this president has invested in shaping public attitudes about the war, what is remarkable is that more Americans aren't opposed. He has been leading from behind again.

As Secretary Gates said last Sunday in rebuffing calls for a reduction larger than 5,000 troops, "we can do anything the president tells us to do, the question is whether it is wise." The president's decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan before 2013 is unwise; it increases the risk of achieving his objectives, the risk to our military forces and diplomats operating in Afghanistan, and the risk of ending this war in 2014.

The crucial question President Obama did not answer in his speech is why he is sending soldiers and Marines to fight in Afghanistan if he is unwilling to commit the resources to consolidate the gains they risked their lives to achieve. This is worse than strategic incoherence. It is morally wrong.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Withdrawing from Afghanistan: Obama vs. the GOP

President Obama is apparently going to announce the extent and pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this week. His decision, in December 2009, to begin the withdrawal in July 2011 was never a good idea because it gave the Taliban the incentive to simply wait us out and accelerate the U.S. public's war fatigue. The best Obama can do now is mitigate the damage by highlighting our hard-won progress of the last two years and telling the American people that stability in Afghanistan is both important and possible, that it will take patience, and that our withdrawal will be measured, slow, and not come at the risk of defeat.

We'll see how Obama measures up to this. Meanwhile, an equally interesting question is, how do the Republican presidential candidates measure up? With the exception of Mitt Romney, not very well.

Leading neoconservative Republicans criticized front-runner Mitt Romney for his statement on Afghanistan during the Republican presidential debate last week. But I think his comment was actually one of the better statements on Afghanistan, compared with the others we've heard recently. Here's what he actually said: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the [Afghan] military in a way that they're able to defend themselves ... I think we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals. But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis [sic] can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."

In other words, we should 1) heed the military's professional judgment, 2) withdraw based on conditions on the ground, and 3) resist withdrawing just to save a buck, and 4) demand more accountability from the Afghans. That's actually pretty good.

By contrast, Newt Gingrich did not directly address the issue of how many troops should be withdrawn, but he did say regarding foreign policy that "the price tag is always a factor." That's true in a trite and uninteresting sense: You don't want to bankrupt yourself unless your very survival is at stake. But Afghanistan is not bankrupting the U.S. Treasury. Much has been made about the price tag of the Afghanistan war, but the reality is that $100 billion per year is peanuts compared with what Iraq cost at its height and less than peanuts compared with the trillions we spend on entitlements and the broader defense budget. Gingrich seemed to imply that we can't afford the Afghanistan war: No one has yet explained how we can afford the consequences of rapid withdrawal.

Tim Pawlenty also did not directly address the troop withdrawal, but he did at least tie our current foreign-policy challenges to September 11, 2001, suggesting that he understands the war against al Qaeda and affiliated militants has not ended just because Americans are tired of it. That's a good sign. But last month in Iowa he reportedly gave a waffling and confused answer to a question about his position on Afghanistan. He would benefit from better coaching on the issue.

Worse yet was Jon Huntsman, who was not at the debate but recently has expressed skepticism of our "heavy" and "expensive" presence in Afghanistan. He admitted that there is likely to be a civil war in Afghanistan if we leave quickly, but argued that there is not "a whole lot we can do about that." Huntsman is at least honest about the consequences of withdrawal. His view that we can't afford the war is worse than Gingrich's because it is more explicit. But his view that we can't do a whole lot to help avert civil war in Afghanistan is astonishing for its pessimism, ignorance, and flippant dismissal of the consequences of chaos in South Asia. Apparently Huntsman thinks he knows better than Bob Gates, Ryan Crocker, and David Petraeus, who have all testified recently that we have made real and tangible progress in Afghanistan and that the war is winnable. He also apparently believes he knows better than his former boss, Barack Obama, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of a responsible transition to Afghan leadership. Huntsman gives no evidence of even caring or believing that what happens in Afghanistan is important to American interests.

(Isolationist Ron Paul, whose candidacy is as serious as Herman Cain's, predictably said he would withdraw immediately from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. I've been unable to find a recent statement by Michele Bachmann on Afghanistan.)

As I predicted, most of the Republicans are using the unnecessary and bungled war in Libya as a stick to beat the president with. Obama scored an own goal with Libya, and the Republicans are right to collect easy points with it. But, with the exception of Romney and perhaps Pawlenty, they are getting carried away and seem to believe that the electorate is in the mood for full-scale retrenchment and withdrawal from the world at large. Worse, they may actually believe that would be good policy. That may play well with the primary electorate, but it will hurt in the general election. More importantly, it would be terrible policy.