Obama’s Noble Sentiments About Afghanistan Undermined by Meager Drawdown

“This is the beginning – but not the end – of our effort to wind down this war.” President Obama told the American public in a speech on Wednesday, June 22, 2011. The president’s address was full of encouraging statements and ideas, pertaining to both the immediate conflict in Afghanistan and his views of American power in general. Yet with all of his spot-on assessments and high-minded principles, there was a great disconnect between what the president espoused and what he did.

Let’s begin with what the president did right:

He acknowledged that the U.S. has made serious progress on its the objectives in Afghanistan. The military missions, to decimate al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the region, turn out the Taliban and train Afghan forces for the transfer of local security, are going well. Considering this news that seems too good to be true, President Obama rightly said that it was time to begin a transition in the war effort: fewer troops, fewer combat missions, more training, devotion to civil society and a serious pursuit of negotiations as a means to responsibly leave this conflict. The United States has spent enough lives, time, and money on the conflict and it is time for it to focus on its domestic issues that are not in short supply.

Further, the president provided insights into his notion of the U.S. in the world that were rather encouraging. Though Robert Creamer highlights the differences between Obama and Bush’s perceptions of just war and ability to follow through on promises, the most important comparisons have to do with their vision of American power and its relations with the world. Though Obama commented on his willingness to use force against those who threaten American lives, he made clear overtures to the United States’ role within the international system and not above it: “When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own. Instead, we must rally international action.” Rather than ignoring the calls of NATO and other allies, the president proudly spoke of his conferences with NATO in Lisbon and his desire for a closer relationship with Pakistan around common goals and mutual-accountability.

Another important difference in Obama’s worldview and that of the former president is his emphasis on the diplomatic process as a means to managing conflict. Expressing his desire to work with the people of Afghanistan and the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, the president highlighted his belief that “peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.” Whereas Bush refused to negotiate with his enemies, Obama acknowledges that there is no way out of Afghanistan that does involve “initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.” Negotiating with not just an enemy but also one whose past is ridden with oppression and tyranny, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 23, 2011, will not be easy to swallow but it is necessary to the process that ultimately presents the best way for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.

Now for what he did wrong:

Sadly, for these high-minded principles of inclusive agreements and political settlements, Obama’s proposed plan for withdrawal does not seem to be steering the conflict away from our current methods. To usher in this change in strategy and acknowledge that the fight with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has largely gone well, the president agreed to withdraw a meager 10,000 troops this year and another 23,000 the next. This wholly underwhelming drawdown hardly deserves that definition. By the end of 2012, the withdrawal of 33,000 troops will still leave approximately 70,000 U.S. forces in the country – twice as many as were in-theater when Obama took office. Let’s not forget the 100,000 contractors that will still be there as well. Combine these figures with whatever commensurate drawdown NATO makes from their 50,000 soldiers and there will still be a rather large military force still on the ground.

For Obama’s talk of changing strategy and turning the corner in Afghanistan, the short term effects of this announcement will be fairly slight despite warnings from Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that these withdrawals are “risky.” Political pressure carried in warnings from top military advisors and a mixture of fear and enthusiasm by those in Afghanistan may help to explain why this decision was made, but it does not excuse it. When asked by various senators at the aforementioned hearing about how U.S. strategy will change, Secretary Clinton commented that current counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions will continue while training efforts will be increased. Only with more time and greater pullouts should anyone expect to see a real shift away from counterinsurgency and major combat missions. This does not sound like a rethinking of strategy or an immediate change of any kind.

Speaking of risks, many of the senators at the hearing pointed out that there are several problems that could result from not changing strategy soon enough. Most touched upon were concerns of creating an Afghan dependence on U.S. security and aid that will leave them unable to defend or support themselves when withdrawals become more severe. Both the president and Secretary Clinton spoke of this plan as gradual and responsible, but one wonders if the incredibly slow pace agreed upon is necessary or even detrimental to anyone’s long-term interests. Even as senators prayed that Clinton might find a political way out of the conflict that could accelerate the return of U.S. troops, those looking for a serious change in the war in Afghanistan will likely have to wait until the withdrawal plans are decided for 2013 and 2014.

A steeper, more responsible drawdown and a serious alteration of our military strategy would have gone a long way in showing the world we are serious about pursuing a more cooperative and diplomatic approach to solving international problems. Instead, President Obama opted for a plan that seemed at odds with his enlightened views of U.S. foreign policy he advocated for in the same speech. Of course, the U.S. is actively pursuing political solutions to the war, but these meager withdrawals show a lack of commitment to a lighter combat approach. This dissonance between Obama’s words and actions provokes questions of how much control he has over his own foreign policy decisions in what is now undoubtedly his war. More importantly, it means that there are still too many U.S. soldiers in harm’s way for little reason.

Adam Cohen is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.