President Barack Obama on Wednesday appeared to soften his support for the counterinsurgency campaign he approved for Afghanistan in 2009 and to dial back American ambitions for the country to a scope that could be handled by a much smaller troop presence.
In a prime-time speech Wednesday night from the East Room at the White House, the president said he would withdraw 5,000 U.S. troops next month and 5,000 more by the end of the year. The remainder of the surge troops, about 23,000, would be withdrawn in 2012, leaving about 70,000 troops in Afghanistan until 2014.
The president didn’t explicitly talk down the counterinsurgency plan he chose — and Gen. David Petraeus championed — for Afghanistan, but he did talk up the success of the clandestine operations that led to the death of Osama bin Laden and have taken out at least half of al-Qaida’s senior leadership over the past 18 months, according to senior administration officials.
While the U.S. has spent years funding and building institutions and infrastructure and mentoring Afghan officials to take responsibility for their country, it was clear during Obama’s speech that he no longer envisions the sort of responsive Afghanistan government that many considered a key component of a successful counterinsurgency strategy.
“We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,” he said. “We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.”
After years of promoting nation-building in Afghanistan, Obama simplified American objectives down to one “achievable” goal: “No safe haven from which al-Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies.”
That goal could be met using a counterterrorist force similar to the one the U.S. has used to positive effect in Pakistan, according to Paul Pillar, a visiting professor and director of studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
“A large military force in Afghanistan is not necessary to achieve our counterterrorist objectives in Afghanistan,” he said.
“One kind of punctuation point to that is the raid that got Bin Laden last month, which required highly skilled U.S. military forces — the SEALs — and it required a lot of intelligence, it required a fairly courageous decision by the commander-in-chief, and it required some kind of place obviously to stage from in terms of where the SEALs staged their helicopters.
“That does not require a 100,000-man-plus force conducting a counterinsurgency,” he said. “That was not part of what made it possible.”
In December 2009, Obama announced a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to deny a safe haven to al-Qaida , and to reverse Taliban momentum, prevent insurgents’ ability to overthrow the Afghan government, and strengthen the capacity of government and security forces so that they could take responsibility for their future.
At least some of those objectives have been met. The surge did reverse Taliban momentum, administration officials note, and it made its return to power unlikely.
The surge also greatly enhanced the coalition’s ability to train Afghan forces to backfill withdrawing U.S. and international forces. There are at least 100,000 more Afghan soldiers and police now than when the surge began, and it was always part of the plan that Afghans would begin to take the lead this year.
But even with fewer troops on the ground, the Taliban could face the same — if not greater — pressure to reconcile with the Afghan government as the focus shifts from building schools and protecting the population to killing and capturing insurgents.
“Even with the withdrawal of the surge forces by summer next year, more than 68,000 soldiers and Marines will remain in the country into 2013, double the number at the start of President Obama’s term,” said Matt Irvine, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security. “The real tests for the U.S. war strategy will be how to manage the remainder of those forces into 2014 and beyond.”
No doubt, many troops on the ground will welcome a new approach. In Helmand province, U.S. Marines have worked carefully over the past 18 months to shield Afghan civilians from insurgent influence; but they’ve done so without authorization to seek out and destroy the enemy.
Many have lamented that they weren’t trained for the nation-building that characterizes the Afghanistan campaign. They want to engage in the fight they were trained for: to locate, close with and destroy the enemy.