The key to America’s Afghanistan policy is not a number
In anticipation of President Obama’s announcement of his plans to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the punditocracy is once again indulging its predilection for foreign-policy numerology. What number, they buzz, will he choose? Will he go for 30,000 troops … but set the goal for having them out as the end of next year? ...
In anticipation of President Obama's announcement of his plans to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the punditocracy is once again indulging its predilection for foreign-policy numerology. What number, they buzz, will he choose?
In anticipation of President Obama’s announcement of his plans to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the punditocracy is once again indulging its predilection for foreign-policy numerology. What number, they buzz, will he choose?
Will he go for 30,000 troops … but set the goal for having them out as the end of next year? Will he go with a smaller number, 15,000 maybe? How fast will the drawdown go? Will there be interim targets? Will he include wiggle room for himself by saying the speed of withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground?
Despite the focus on numbers, there is no more science to this than there is to the numbers being used to balance the federal budget. Every number is merely a symbol that means something different to a specific constituency. Tomorrow, the lower the number and the slower the rate of withdrawal, the greater deference the president will be seen to be showing to the generals. The higher the number and the faster and more certain the withdrawal targets, the more he will be seen to be responsive to the growing number of Americans who feel it’s time to wrap up America’s longest war.
But no one knows for sure what the "right" number is because there is no clarity about what our objectives are. And that is what the president’s remarks tomorrow night really need to be about. If we are going to leave one more soldier in Afghanistan for one more day, we ought to have a very clear reason for doing so.
For the numbers to have any meaning — indeed for the president’s remarks to do so — he needs to describe more clearly than he has to date his vision for what he hopes to achieve during the remainder of our stay there and what Afghanistan and the region will look like afterward. Al Qaeda is effectively degraded according to all reports. What more can we achieve fighting an original enemy who is no longer there? How will staying longer reduce the likelihood Afghanistan again becomes a haven for extremists? How will it help produce a government more sympathetic to our interests? Which of these goals are most important?
The metrics we use for determining success are thus much more strategically and politically significant than the mere calculation of our troop strength. That said, the most important number of all is already known to all. That is 2014, the date by which we are committed to leaving. Because our adversaries … and our "friends" who really don’t like us very much … all know we will be out by then, and therefore they also know that what happens in the next couple of years is pretty much meaningless. They have been dealing with foreign interlopers for eons in that rough part of the world, and they know that time is always on their side, that clocks beat armies every time.
That makes the president’s job that much tougher, of course. If his announcement is to be more than a mere political gesture, it must make the case what crucial U.S. national interests will be advanced by spending hundreds of billions more and putting tens of thousands of U.S. lives at risk in a country that we know we will be more or less out of in three years or so. What can be achieved by being "at strength" through another "fighting season" or two? What specifically? Where? What are our political goals? What does success look like? How will it look different in 2014 from what we see on the ground today? How about in the years after that?
Ten years in with over 2,400 coalition casualties and approaching half a trillion dollars spent, one thing is certain. We know that success does not look like any of the numbers we have compiled thus far.
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