The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Will Obama ‘split the baby’ on Afghanistan — again?

When President Barack Obama announces his decision on the size of the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan tomorrow night, he can satisfy those calling for a "modest" reduction, or those calling for a "significant" reduction of U.S. soldiers – or he can take the middle road and make both sides equally unhappy. Obama will address ...

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

When President Barack Obama announces his decision on the size of the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan tomorrow night, he can satisfy those calling for a "modest" reduction, or those calling for a "significant" reduction of U.S. soldiers - or he can take the middle road and make both sides equally unhappy.

Obama will address the nation Wednesday at 8 p.m. from the White House to "lay out his plan for implementing his strategy...to draw down American troops from Afghanistan," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

When Obama formulated his Afghan war strategy in December 2009, he was faced with two sets of advisors giving him contradictory recommendations. On one side were military and Pentagon leaders urging him to surge 40,000 troops to Afghanistan to implement a counterinsurgency strategy. On the other side were NSC advisors and Vice President Joseph Biden, who urged Obama to surge only 20,000 troops to focus on counterterrorism operations.

When President Barack Obama announces his decision on the size of the U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan tomorrow night, he can satisfy those calling for a "modest" reduction, or those calling for a "significant" reduction of U.S. soldiers – or he can take the middle road and make both sides equally unhappy.

Obama will address the nation Wednesday at 8 p.m. from the White House to "lay out his plan for implementing his strategy…to draw down American troops from Afghanistan," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

When Obama formulated his Afghan war strategy in December 2009, he was faced with two sets of advisors giving him contradictory recommendations. On one side were military and Pentagon leaders urging him to surge 40,000 troops to Afghanistan to implement a counterinsurgency strategy. On the other side were NSC advisors and Vice President Joseph Biden, who urged Obama to surge only 20,000 troops to focus on counterterrorism operations.

Obama, in King Solomon-like fashion, decided to draft his own six-page plan for Afghanistan that resulted in a surge of 30,000 troops to pursue a strategy that mixed counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

Tomorrow, Obama faces a similar dilemma. Many reports predict he will announce that the United States will withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of 2011. That number is not likely to please those calling for a "modest" withdrawal, or those calling for "significant" reductions.

"It should be a significant number, that’s what the president committed to, and significant means a minimum of 15,000 by the end of this year," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable today. He has also recommended that the entire surge force of 30,000 soldiers be removed by next spring.

"If it’s not significant, it doesn’t serve its purpose, which is to make it clear to the Afghan government that the primary responsibility for security needs to be transferred to them. And anything less than 15,000 sends a weaker message to the Afghan people and the wrong message to the American people, who really want us to make significant reductions in our presence," Levin said.

Levin’s GOP counterpart, committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) is on the opposite side of this debate. He told The Cable Tuesday that he agreed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the drawdown should be "modest."

"Secretary Gates said a modest number that would not affect the troops that we’ve sent over as part of the surge. I totally agree with Secretary Gates. That’s 3,000 to 5,000, that’s what Secretary Gates recommended," said McCain.

The White House is cognizant of the political risks of going against the advice of its military professionals. Administration officials were quick to point out that ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus gave Obama a "range of options" when the two met at the White House last week.

But with so many officials and lawmakers already on record with their recommendations, the White House will be hard pressed to claim that it is following the recommendations of one side or the other if it does decide to announce the withdrawal of 10,000 troops.

Top officials have already admitted that the size of the drawdown won’t be based on purely military considerations, but also the public mood concerning the Afghan war.

"It goes without saying that there are a lot of reservations in the Congress about the war in Afghanistan, and our level of commitment. There are concerns among the American people who are tired of a decade of war," Gates said on Tuesday. "So the president obviously has to take those matters into consideration, as well as the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan in making his decision."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on the president’s decision Tuesday, but will be testifying on the issue before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday morning.

Those who want faster reductions not only believe that U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unjustifiable, but also make the argument that the current pace of war operations is fiscally unsustainable.

"Cost is very relevant issue to the speed of these reductions. There’s a very large savings with the increasing level of reductions," Levin said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.