Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) is speaking at Brookings today on the Obama administration’s course in Afghanistan.
His speech, while largely supportive of the frame that Obama has brought to the challenge — a narrowed mission, discussion of an offramp, and more — also includes lingering doubts.
There is much that is commendable in the president’s plan. I applaud his focus on ensuring that Afghanistan’s future is in the hands of Afghanistan’s people. I believe his decision that our commitment is not open ended, and that we begin to withdraw troops in July of 2011, is important in getting the Afghans to take responsibility for their own security. And I believe the inclusion of efforts to reintegrate into Afghan civil society local Taliban fighters with loose affiliation to the Taliban’s extremist ideology is an important step, one we pursued with great success in Iraq and that commanders such as General McChrystal believe can be successful in Afghanistan.
But I am concerned that the large new commitment of U.S. combat forces included in the plan may undermine the over-arching goal of preparing the Afghans to secure their own success. Because of those concerns, I have been and will continue to urge the administration to focus intently on the training aspect of our mission.
The confusing part of this debate hits on the July 2011 exit plan, outlined by Obama but watered down by Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton and Michael Mullen in later Congressional testimony. Levin states:
Finally, the much-discussed July 2011 date for the beginning of U.S. troop reductions is vital. It performs a “forcing function,” as Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal said yesterday. So long as the Karzai government sees an open-ended U.S. commitment to carry the fight, there is too little motivation to energize its own institutions – either to provide accountable governance and quality services, or to provide for Afghanistan’s security.
President Karzai himself has acknowledged the value of the July 2011 date, saying, “it is good that we are facing a deadline” and that his nation must begin to stand on its own. But if deeds don’t follow those words, we will find ourselves in a frustrated mission. The Afghan government must begin a meaningful anti-corruption campaign, work much harder to provide basic services, develop plans to reintegrate local, reconcilable Taliban fighters into Afghan civil society, recruit the security forces needed to ensure the country’s long-term security, and employ those forces aggressively.
If the Afghan government honors these commitments, we and our allies should renew our commitment to helping it along the way – without taking on the whole job ourselves. We owe it to the men and women of our military, who have served so well and bravely, act to improve the immediate security situation we face in Afghanistan. But that nation’s future can only be secured by its own people.
I also think that the President needed to sketch an exit window, one that is more firm than soft.
However, the quicksand that Obama’s leading national security cabinet members and military advisers have poured around the July 2011 date actually gives Karzai an incentive to “not succeed too much” but to continue to seem “earnestly committed” to America’s general goals. Karzai doesn’t want US forces to leave — not while he is around.
In fact, Karzai has asked for fifteen years of security aid.
So, rather than being a “forcing function,” the July 2011 date may actually be a date to make sure the Afghan security forces are seen to be working real hard but having great difficulty. The forcing function would be to keep American forces in theater, not to allow them the offramp the President outlined.
— Steve Clemons