The withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next 15 months probably will be manageable for commanders on the ground, who will have 90 percent of their force through this year and can increasingly fill the gaps with Afghan troops.
The planned drawdown provides “enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement last night after President Barack Obama announced that he will pull out 10,000 of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops this year and 23,000 more by next summer.
Still, the reduction increases the risk that advances made against the Taliban in the past year will be reversed, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee today.
“The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” he said. “While there’s more risk, I don’t consider it significant.”
The U.S.-led NATO coalition aims to convert what commanders have described as “fragile and reversible” progress into enough of a rout to force the Taliban to the peace table. That means front-line fighting for the remaining North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops as increasing numbers of Western-trained Afghan forces begin to take control in quieter areas.
“What we have is the vast majority of our forces for the next two fighting seasons,” Mullen told the panel. By the end of 2014, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed would mark the handover of control to Afghan forces, the number of U.S. and other coalition troops will be “dramatically reduced,” he said.
House Speaker John Boehner said today he was “generally supportive of the plan because there is enough flexibility” to “take into consideration” the conditions on the ground the ground.
“The top brass at the Pentagon are comfortable with the president’s strategy,” Boehner said.
Success also may depend in part on whether Afghans see a continued U.S. commitment or sense a repeat of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal two decades ago that led to the rise of the Taliban.
Gates, who leaves office at the end of this month, said during his last visit to the war zone two weeks ago that military pressure might persuade Taliban leaders to negotiate by the end of this year.
The surge of troops that Obama ordered in late 2009 has pushed the Taliban from its heartland of Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south. The coalition plans to turn more fighting attention to the country’s eastern region on the border with Pakistan during the next 12 months.
Unlike the desert south, the east’s mountainous terrain makes for a short warm-weather fighting season. That may alleviate some of the risk of removing 23,000 U.S. forces by next summer, rather than waiting until winter sets in.
“That’s the part that’s probably a little more problematic than it needed to be,” said retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, a defense-oriented policy center in Washington.
Minimizing the risk will be the challenge of the successor to Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who is appearing before a Senate committee today for a hearing on his nomination as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Petraeus will be succeeded by Lieutenant General John Allen, who has been deputy commander for U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and central Asia.
At the same time, more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers and national police officers have been trained and fielded over the last 18 months. The NATO Training Mission aims to have 305,000 Afghan security forces trained by October and add 50,000 more over the following 12 months.
A separate project has trained and equipped 6,000 local Afghan police officers and is growing. The coalition also has begun to support Afghan tribal resistance to the Taliban, said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, a research institute in Alexandria, Virginia.
“That’s got the potential to make up for a downsizing of forces” in the 48-nation coalition, said Jones, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan who worked as a special operations adviser and liaison for the Pentagon until earlier this year.
The U.S. and its coalition partners must follow through with promised financial support and equipment until Afghanistan has the means to shoulder such costs itself, said Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, the country’s ambassador to Washington. Jobs for insurgents who give up the fight and development aid that gives citizens hope for the future also is critical, he said.
“The president was clear in his message that he will have a long-term commitment and the United States will remain a partner with Afghanistan,” he said. “This partnership should be strengthened.”
Afghans may not trust Obama’s promises of a long-term U.S. commitment, said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, who has consulted for Petraeus. Afghans may hesitate to back the government for fear the Taliban will return and exact retribution, he said.
Ahmad Majidyar, a native of Afghanistan and a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based policy center, agreed. He was in the country in October.
“People saw the July 2011 deadline for the beginning of a withdrawal of troops as an exit strategy, that the U.S. has given up the fight against the Taliban and is now finding a way to just abandon Afghanistan once again,” Majidyar said. “They don’t see it as a transition of security responsibility to the Afghan forces.”
NATO nations and other contributors to the coalition may also begin withdrawing their forces, possibly affecting the U.S. timetable. Other countries added almost 10,000 troops to match the U.S. surge.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has said there would be no race for the exits, last night reiterated alliance support for the planned transition to Afghan responsibility nationwide in 2014.