(President Obama with Afghanistan President Karzai, Pakistan President Zardari and Vice President Biden during a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House May 6, 2009. Official White House Photo By Lawrence Jackson)
President Obama’s decision to withdraw 10,000 US troops by year’s end — and another 23,000 by the end of 2012 has drawn little applause.
Some think he’s moving too slowly and others think that he’s forfeiting the field to the Taliban and leaving Afghanistan to become a sanctuary yet again for al Qaeda.
But Obama and his Vice President, Joe Biden, have it just right and have achieved something very important in the political battle over America’s Afghanistan adventure.
Obama/Biden have broken the back of the COIN (counter-insurgency doctrine) — that ever larger numbers of deployed troops equal ever large security and stability deliverables. COIN was always about size and resources — the more deployed the more that could be achieved.
COIN was a nifty formula that led to occupation of a country and redirection of the habits and security situation of villages and neighborhoods.
Only problem is that occupation has its downsides. As US forces surged into corners of Afghanistan, so too did Taliban recruitment surge.
America’s big footprint in Afghanistan has contributed to an impression that the military is overstretched, suffering from institutional fatigue.
Even General David Petraeus has said that his troop recommendations to the President were not based on an assessment of America’s overall strategic needs and position — but were focused exclusively on the needs of the Afghanistan/Pakistan environment.
In other words, America’s most famous and arguably successful general, a celebrity now in his own right, has been advocating that his venture be the Moby Dick of concern in America’s national security portfolio — rather than a more balanced venture weighed against other problems with which the US is strapped.
But Obama has now definitively given up on the conception that “bigger is better.”
Obama has also broken the back of the Petraeus frame on Afghanistan that America’s mission was to ‘defeat’ the Taliban. The White House instead is suggesting that in the time that we have yet on the clock, the US and allies will ‘shape the choices’ of the Taliban and not allow circumstances in which the Taliban could overthrow the legitimate Afghanistan government, now headed by Hamid Karzai.
These are big shifts, enormous ones — and the President in my book has taken the opportunity of the death of bin Laden to check off the al Qaeda box and to pivot towards a slippery slope leading to a significantly reduced role in Afghanistan — and a quality of role that in my view may very well leave Afghanistan in better shape in the long run than where the Petraeus plan was taking us.
These ideas were very much a part of the Afghanistan Study Group, which I helped found and which many leaders — most lately Jon Huntsman — are endorsing in spirit. I commend the entire report to you but here are the five quick takeaways that our group suggested 18 months ago:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and inclusion. The US should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
2. Downsize and eventual end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the US military footprint. The US should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Special forces, intelligence assets, and other US capabilities should continue to seek out and target known al Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster US domestic security efforts and to track illicit nuclear weapons globally.
4. Encourage economic development. Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy.
5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.
Making progress on all fronts. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have learned the lessons of ‘too big to succeed’ and are now correcting this hemorrhaging of US power.
— Steve Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons. Another version of this article appeared at TheAtlantic.com