Eighteen months after President Obama ordered a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, the president and his advisers are debating how many troops to withdraw from the country beginning next month. As this debate continues in the White House and around the country, there is growing skepticism about the wisdom of such a drawdown with substantial progress at stake.
The Washington Post editorial highlighted the current campaign’s “tactical military success” and the reverse of the Taliban’s momentum. It also pointed to progress in expanding and training the Afghan army, “which is due next month to take over lead security responsibility in seven provinces and cities with a quarter of the country’s population.” In light of these gains, the Post’s editorial concluded:
“What all that means is that next month is not a logical or appropriate moment for the United States to begin a troop withdrawal—whether small, medium, or large…A larger withdrawal this year—the 15,000 suggested by some in Congress, for example—would…make it hard, if not impossible, to extend or even sustain military gains against the Taliban, while sending its leaders—and their sponsors in Pakistan—the message that there is no need to make concessions to a rapidly retreating force…We hope the president will not repeat the mistake of publicly setting withdrawal dates. Instead, he should bet on sustaining the gains his strategy has achieved—by minimizing this summer’s pullout.”
Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, who have spent 10 months in Afghanistan since 2009 providing independent assessments to U.S. commanders, also warned of the security implications of the withdrawal, especially the impact on operations in eastern Afghanistan:
“…The enemy still has safe havens within eastern Afghanistan that must be cleared before they are turned over to Afghan responsibility. So must the Haqqani network—which operates from eastern Afghanistan and is closely linked to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, with international aspirations—be defeated…Removing U.S. forces prematurely will deny the coalition and the Afghans the ability to shift their forces to eastern Afghanistan.”
The Kagans also wrote that arguments for withdrawal are faulty, strategically illogical, and bear the stamp of their political origins:
“The economic argument for withdrawing troops faster makes even less sense…If we defeat ourselves in Afghanistan now, we will have to choose later whether to accept likely attacks on the U.S. homeland or to intervene militarily once again—at a much higher price than we could hope to save now. Withdrawal is a penny-wise but pound-foolish approach to an enduring national security problem.”