President Obama’s stated promise to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by July 2011, a commitment he made when he committed 30,000 additional troops to the war early in his presidency, is coming near. The major question is how large a withdrawal he will order, and what the consequences of whatever size drawdown he chooses, will be. He is, of course, suffering from no shortage of advice on what his decision should be, much of it tinged liberally with partisan political and ideological/strategic underpinnings. When one thinks about the prospects, an analogy between the situation and Goldilocks assessment of the three bears’ porridge may not be inappropriate.
What to do about Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly in this era of foreign policy hyper-partisanship, become a political fight that divides those who support continuing the war and those who do not (the latter being the preference of the majority of Americans in polling results). The arguments against the war–and thus for a large withdrawal that is the first step toward a total pullout (at least of ground combat forces)–tend to come from liberal Democrats, although parts of their arguments appeal more broadly. Supporters of the war and thus opponents of any substantial troop withdrawal tend to be conservative Republicans who believe either that the mission is too vital to be abandoned or compromised or who believe there has been adequate progress that a successful conclusion may be within reach.
The two positions deserve at least some elaboration. The opponents, whose chief spokesman increasingly is Massachusetts senator John Kerry (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic nominee for president in 2004), make at least three separate arguments for pulling back. The first is that the United States cannot afford to continue to drop $10 billion a month into Afghanistan given current economic conditions at home. The expenses are particularly odious because they are inflated by the costs of “nation-building” associated with the Petraeus strategy of counterinsurgency, a cost that could be reduced with a smaller commitment with smaller troop numbers. Second, they argue the situation can be handled with a more concentrated effort aimed at the remnants of Al Qaeda, which requires neither large numbers of “muddy boots” on the ground nor the levels of financial resources currently being expended. Third, the scaling back is further justified by the successful elimination of Usama bin Laden (and subsequently his heir apparent), leaving the terrorist organization in some level of disarray. Not so openly discussed are the further assumptions that the war is probably unwinnable under any circumstances and that the Karzai government does not really warrant continuing American support (part of the reason the war is unwinnable).
Supporters, of course, disagree with this assessment. Their arguments are most sharply made by active participants in the war itself, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus. Both of these officials have argued that progress has been made but that it is, in a phrase first used by Petraeus but adopted by Gates, “fragile and reversible.” The heart of the argument is that real progress is being made and that a precipitous drawdown would endanger what has been accomplished. In Gates’ own words, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on its back foot.” In an interview with 60 Minutes, Gates drew a football analogy, warning against abandoning the field when the U.S. was on the enemy’s “two-yard line.” Critics, of course, find these descriptions of progress to be overblown.
It may be instructive that neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their positions as the decision, whatever it may be, is being implemented. Leon Panetta, the current Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), has already been nominated to replace Gates as Secretary of Defense, and when questioned by senators (notably John McCain) about whether he agreed with the Gates assessment in confirmation hearings, he was noticeably circumspect in his answers. Petraeus has been tapped to replace Panetta to head an agency that has historically had a more jaundiced view of the Afghan adventure; his appointment also takes the general off the hook as the commander of what may be a sinking ship.
So what will the president decide? As usual in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that dominates Washington, it is a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” set of choices. He cannot avoid withdrawals altogether, because to do so would be politically too injurious, reneging on a public promise and alienating his natural constituent base on the left. He cannot order a massive withdrawal, because doing do runs the risk of the entire enterprise going south before the 2012 election, and certainly inflaming the core of the GOP right. That leaves him with options inside the extremes, ranging from a token to a moderate to a sizable reduction. So what will the President choose to do?
The pressures are both strategic and political. Strategically, it boils down to a dichotomy that favors the extremes. If the war is important, progress is being made, and a favorable outcome is within reach (essentially the Gates argument), then it makes sense to continue and thus order only a token reduction (say 10,000 of the 30,000 added previously by Obama). If who governs Afghanistan is not important to the U.S., progress is not really being made, and the prospects are endlessly indecisive, then it makes equal sense to cut our losses and get out as fast as possible. Thus, a maximum withdrawal is the answer. The problem is that there is not great agreement on any of the conditions (importance, progress, end state), making a decisive strategic decision difficult to make.
The political pressures all point to the 2012 election. What decision will most help/least hurt the president’s reelection prospects? Since almost no one publicly argues the war will be over (especially favorably) between now and then, the question is what action today will have the least injurious effects on the election then? Since we cannot ramp up an instant victory, that means adopting an approach that will result in the smallest possible losses and, most critically, that insures the situation will not have visibly deteriorated between now and election day 2012. That suggests a moderate withdrawal–enough not to look entirely like a token, but not enough to throw the situation into peril. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. How does a reduction of 15-20,000 sound?
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay first appeared at his blog What After Iraq?.