2013: Withdrawal or Transition?

2013:  Withdrawal or Transition?

Ambiguity has surrounded the various deadlines that President Obama laid out for the war in Afghanistan since he took office.  In 2009, he said that U.S. troops would begin to come home in 2011.  In 2011, he said the U.S. and its international partners would transition to Afghan lead by 2014.  Now, he says the U.S. will end its combat role next year.  The shifting goalposts obscure a crucial issue:  are these deadlines for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, or for transitioning to Afghan leadership with continued U.S. and NATO assistance?  The difference will probably determine the outcome of the war.

Obama said in his June 2011 speech about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan that "Our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.  Our mission will change from combat to support.  By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."  Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the U.S. is moving up the deadline to 2013.

ISAF similarly announced in 2010 that "We reaffirm our support for President Karzai’s objective for the Afghan National Security Forces to lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014."  Yet ISAF went on to say that "the Alliance’s commitment to Afghanistan will endure beyond ISAF’s current mission."

So the United States and NATO will continue to "support" the Afghans with an unspecified long-term "commitment" after the transition.  Is "support" understood to mean the continued presence of U.S. and NATO military trainers and contractors embedded with the Afghan army?  Some reports suggest the NATO Training Mission is planning to substantially decrease its supporting personnel and activities as soon as next year.  Given the current plan to transition the lead combat role to Afghan security forces such a plan appears not only confusing, as the Afghan forces will require more support than ever as their responsibility increases, but dangerous.

The administration’s shifting positions surely reflect deliberate ambiguity to maximize policymakers’ wiggle room, a disagreement among senior policymakers, or both.  They sound like a call for withdrawal, but they allow the U.S. and NATO to keep a small number of troops in country for training and logistical support if necessary.  And it will be: keeping some international forces deployed in Afghanistan beyond 2014 is almost certainly necessary to keep the Afghan Army viable, consolidate the gains of the last two years, and maintain a robust counterterrorism capability in the region.

The problem is that almost everybody believes that 2014 is a withdrawal deadline.  For example, the New York Times, in reporting Panetta’s remarks, said that the current U.S. and NATO plan calls for "withdrawing all combat troops by the end of 2014."  But the Department of Defense said in a subsequent news release, clarifying Panetta’s comments, that "Barack Obama has made clear that U.S. troops will have an enduring presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 — in counterterrorism and ‘train, advise and assist’ roles, for example."  If it were so clear, a clarifying press release would be unnecessary.

The problem is that even if the Times and other media outlets are getting the story wrong, the public believes their inaccurate version because the Obama administration is giving mixed signals.  In December Ambassador Croker said about the 2014 deadline, "I don’t know what we’re going to be doing in 2014."  If America’s Ambassador to Afghanistan does not even know whether or not American troops are withdrawing, it is safe to say that the administration does not have a policy.

Meanwhile, the widespread expectation that U.S. forces will completely withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014 could become politically impossible to resist.  Iraq is an instructive precedent.  The 2011 deadline in Iraq was never meant to be a deadline for complete withdrawal.  U.S. and Iraqi policymakers understood that 2011 was to be a transition during which the status of U.S. forces would be normalized and a long-term foundation laid for continued U.S. and NATO training assistance.  Misperception, political pressure, and public opinion in both the United States and Iraq complicated negotiations, making it easier for Obama and Maliki to walk away from the whole thing. 

Obama is risking a similar dynamic in Afghanistan.  He may win a few points with his political base for appearing to move towards a complete withdrawal in 2014, but virtually no one outside of the anti-war left believes a complete withdrawal on a set timetable would be helpful for the Afghans, the Pakistanis, or the United States.  Obama himself has repeatedly stressed the need for a responsible withdrawal.  The war is only now entering its culminating phase and the ultimate outcome, for good or ill, will probably be decided by the choices, battles, and negotiations of the next two years more than the previous ten.  It is a poor time to indulge in politically-expedient ambiguity.