US President Barack Obama announced what most Afghanistan watchers knew was inevitable, a sizeable draw down of American troops in the country. The pull out of 10,000 in 2011 followed by reduction of the entire surge strength of 33,000 by September 2012 was too less for the Democrats and too, “aggressive,” for the military and the Republicans. This was no doubt President Obama’s, “please none,” announcement.
International reactions however have been favourable. UN Secretary-General appreciated President Obama’s announcement to start the drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. While President Karzai also welcomed the same, the Taliban expectedly called it symbolic. Internationally this spelt a pull out by others with France and Spain having already announced one and UK to do so shortly.
Republicans who always want to show Obama in a poor light as a soft President spared no punches. Senator John McCain, questioned the timing, "Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners — the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective," McCain said.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed his support of the plan to the House Armed Services Committee but he preferred a less, “aggressive pull out”. General David Petraeus slated to take over the Central Intelligence Agency spoke in almost same words. "The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline, than what we had recommended. Again, that is understandable," the general said.
While the security situation seems to have deteriorated in the country with lack of corresponding improvement in quality of Afghan forces though numbers have grown, from the security point of view reduction of the US forces will certainly make a difference on the negative side particularly as American forces are in most of the critical areas.
The open disagreement that the US defence chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullens and Gen Petraeus have expressed with the President is not unusual given that they had possibly advised a pull out of only up to 5000 given political expediency. The President has increased the same to 10,000 but the top brass would possibly want to reduce the overall numbers that were being pulled out in 2012 which at 33,000 was seen to be high and brings down the level of forces to around 70,000.
This number along with corresponding reduction of NATO forces is likely to reduce the overall ISAF troop level down to around 100,000 which is not likely to be enough to contain the militancy. While the corresponding increase in numbers of the Afghan army would be over 300,000 plus their operational efficiency is seen to be low, given these constraints it is envisaged that there are likely to be some security slippages in the country unless the reintegration and reconciliation plan goes well.
Conflict situations as in Afghanistan are not amenable to short term fixes. Afghanistan has been at war for the past three decades. The campaign for stability in real terms started in 2006 when NATO took over command of the UN mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the country. To expect results within five years against the Taliban which is a force over 25,000 or one fifth of NATO in five years plus is highly optimistic?
US military commanders led by General Petraeus veteran of modern counter insurgency campaigns have a sensible strategy of conduct of offensive counter militancy and terrorism operations supported by development and carrot of negotiations with the guerrillas. The profile of troops on the ground is to transit from ISAF to Afghan National Army and Police by 2014. The plan is largely supported by the US administration as well as the international community. However the only problem is time, to convert raw, uneducated Afghan youth into soldiers to fight a modern counter militancy campaign will take anything up to a decade. The international community is willing to support the Afghans realising the suffering that they have undergone over a period.
But for President Obama time is to be measured in terms of the months to re-elections in 2012 with Republicans likely to make a tough match of it given the state of the economy and unemployment numbers refusing to fall. Despite his considerable skills and the success of the death of Osama Bin Laden behind him, Obama will have his hands full to beat the likes of Romney and others who are expected to get through the Republican primaries.
Ironically the answer to this dilemma is with the Taliban. If sufficient top leaders and sizeable numbers agree to join the government it would mean a big break in the security situation in the country, in turn supporting the Obama plan, if not the military will say, “we told you so” in 2014.