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Military Experts Scrutinize Obama’s Drawdown Plan

BY Larisa Epatko  June 22, 2011 at 9:10 PM EST

U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan. Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama said Wednesday that he plans to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year and the full 33,000 “surge” amount by next summer.

He ordered the surge in 2009 in an effort to clamp down on insurgent attacks and create an environment suitable for training Afghan forces to take over security of their country by 2014.

View a graphic of the levels of U.S. and allied troops during the length of the Afghan war:

We called on a number of military analysts Wednesday evening for their take on President Obama’s troop reduction plans:

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Retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik

Senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War

Imagine the Allies deciding, in November of 1944 (one month before the unpredicted German counteroffensive called “the Battle of the Bulge”), to cut troop levels because “the counteroffensive is going well now.”

Wars end responsibly when one’s enemy accepts defeat and one’s strategic aims are met … neither of these conditions exists in Afghanistan. We left the job un-done after the initial attack to oust the Taliban thus dragging out the war, costing more in blood and treasure, and setting the conditions for the Taliban’s return. We are at risk of making the same mistake again.

The tides of war are receding now, but they were not 18 months ago. They’re receding because we have enough troops to fight hard. And the only way they’ll continue to recede is to maintain the pressure of the counteroffensive. The troop reductions announced put all this at risk.

Light is visible now, but wasn’t visible 18 months ago, and it can dim as fast as it lit.

Let’s be clear, we should be much further along in Afghanistan than we are. But the United States and its NATO allies used a flawed strategy in Afghanistan for eight years. The “counter-terrorist plus” strategy, the de facto American policy from 2001-2009, had our forces go after al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorists while protecting critical infrastructure and completing reconstruction projects. It wasn’t until the Strasbourg Summit of April of 2009 that NATO formally recognized that an insurgency existed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, for the U.S., Afghanistan became an “economy of effort” theater. Thus money, personnel, and strategic attention were cut to wage the war in Iraq. Executing a flawed strategy with insufficient resources was getting us nowhere. President Obama acknowledged as much saying, in his December 2009 speech at West Point, “Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards.” We risk moving backwards yet again.

The International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan (ISAF) has taken the key areas within Helmand and Kandahar provinces and wrested the initiative from the Taliban, but our enemies are fighting to regain what they lost. NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan (NTM-A) has strengthened the capacity of much of the Afghan National Security Forces, but this work is not yet complete. At the end of this fighting season, the Taliban will be substantially weaker than they were last year. In 2012 and 2013, the fight must be taken to the East. Reducing troops as the president announced not only puts at risk the gains achieved but also risks arresting the momentum of the counteroffensive. We will hand a respite to our enemies, and they will take advantage of it.

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Thomas Johnson

Research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

There has been much anticipation concerning President Obama’s drawdown plan for Afghan “surge troops.” Some have even suggested that President Obama’s announcement on the drawdown or “withdrawal” of surge troops would set the military course for the rest of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. The American public has been told that long, serious, and intensive “policy discussions” have taken place that informed the president’s decisions. And while I do not doubt the seriousness of the discussions, I do have serious questions concerning the eventual course of direction and its implications.

In reality it turns out that the “drawdown” or reduction in forces is not a reduction at all. The drawdown, in a very real way, turns out to be more procedural than substantive; in fact, over the short term it is no drawdown at all. Let me explain what I mean. At any particular time the U.S. Army in Afghanistan has 10,000 service members on Rest and Recuperation (R&R). Next month the Army will announce that Afghan military tours will be modified to reflect nine month tours with no R&R. (The U.S. Marine Corps’ present Afghan tours are seven months with no R&R and the Air Force tours are six months with no R&R.) This results in the net withdrawal to be ZERO over the short term. The 10,000 to be withdrawn equals those that would be on R&R under the old Afghan Army military tour terms.

The masking of the reality of the drawdown and the modification of tours with no R&R is felt very directly by military families that have already sacrificed so much. The “sacred trust” in our troops that President Obama so rightly invoked during this speech, does not involve over-stretching them. Our military personnel and their families over the last decade have fought two wars simultaneously and have experienced PTSD, suicides, divorce and much more. Questions concerning new rotation plans and “dwell time” — time spent at home between deployments to Afghanistan — could also be in the works. Secretary of Defense Gates has called such decisions concerning rotations and tour length as “probably the toughest decision” he has made as secretary.

Serious questions also remain concerning the transition to having the Afghan National Security Forces take over the security burden from the U.S. and NATO forces — a centerpiece of President Obama’s Afghanistan policy, the biggest of which is the sustainment of Afghan National Security Forces over the long term. The Afghan government’s total annual revenue presently hovers around $1 billion, and the Obama administration’s budget for fiscal year 2012 to train and equip Afghanistan’s expanding army and national police force is $12.8 billion, of the total $112 billion the U.S. will spend in Afghanistan this year. It will be extremely difficult for Afghanistan to manage and sustain a force of that size and expense over the long term without protracted external financial and material support. Realistic expectations and level foresight regarding the physical limitations of these pursuits are required if any security or stability equilibrium is to be achieved in Afghanistan before the eventual scale down of international forces in 2014 as announced.

As far as reversing Taliban momentum in certain parts of the country, while some progress has been made it is easily reversible and is presently tenuous at best. Taliban kidnappings, assassinations and the continued Taliban control of vast swaths of land continue to be very problematic. Moreover, the Afghan people have lost patience with the U.S. and NATO and what they perceive as a long list of unfulfilled promises.

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Vali Nasr

Professor of international politics at Tufts University

The president is arguing that the war is not really with the Taliban but with al-Qaida, and having killed Osama bin Laden we can declare victory and start our withdrawal. But the surge in 2009 was designed to defeat the Taliban. It is true that it has not achieved that, the cost of the war is not sustainable, but from what the president said it is not clear what our strategy for defeating the Taliban and ending the war is going to be. In the coming days the administration will have to address that question.

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Douglas Ollivant

Senior national security studies fellow at the New America Foundation

This speech is a welcome step toward a sustainable Afghanistan policy, one that realizes that our interests in that country are real, but limited. This speech puts us on a path that aligns our commitment to Afghanistan with these limited interests — a foreign policy one might almost call “humble.”

There are, of course, some political flourishes in the speech. While al-Qaida may well be on the ropes, it is not clear that the same can be said of the Taliban. The Taliban retain considerable strength in many parts of Afghanistan, and appear to be expanding into areas where their presence was previously limited. I can’t imagine that many analysts would agree that there is much reason to believe that the Taliban will accept talks under the conditions outlined by the president.

The real test of this policy will almost certainly occur in years to come. While it is possible that the Afghan government will rise to the challenge put to them by President Obama, it is by no means certain. While making Afghanistan a “perfect place” is a straw man, it may take political courage to realize that it may not even be a good, or even a marginal place in some areas. But we can not make it so at any reasonable cost.

But the president does much to dispel the bogeyman that failing to hunt down every last Taliban will somehow result in a return of al-Qaida sanctuaries. Implicit in his speech is the stubborn fact that our partnership with the Afghan government will include the ability to fly drones over that country more or less at will and continue to strike large groups of terrorists or Taliban when and if they emerge. We will not disengage from Afghanistan, but we will “right-size” our presence there.

But ultimately the president is right. In his concluding paragraphs that could have been written by any number of his predecessors, he emphasizes the bipartisan truth that the true strength of American is not its military — though the military is indeed a thing to be proud of — but instead America’s innovation economy that permits us to pay this magnificent military. To focus scarce resources at home is not isolationism, but instead to play to American’s true strength and let commerce be our international engagement.

Interactive graphic by Justin Myers