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President Obama changes direction on Afghanistan, again

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.