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Why We Should Keep to the July 2011 Timeline in Afghanistan

SOURCE: AP/Ron Edmonds

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, makes a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House after meeting with Karzai last year.

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Confusion reigns over the significance of the July 2011 timeline in Afghanistan that President Barack Obama established in his December 2009 West Point speech. At that date U.S. troops are supposed to begin coming home from the country.

Many in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region have interpreted the timeline as the end of the American commitment to the region. Americans, for their part, hold divergent interpretations. Those on the left of the political spectrum are concerned that July 2011 will come and go with no or insignificant troop withdrawals, while those on the right believe U.S. forces will be rapidly downsized.

Greater uncertainty has developed in the past couple of weeks as different Obama administration officials have given conflicting messages on the date’s meaning. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both indicated that the July 2011 date will be the “beginning of a transition” and that some troops will withdraw. But neither has specified the number of troops or the pace of withdrawal.

Military officials, on the other hand, appear to be pushing back against the timeline. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a “Meet the Press” interview in August that he may recommend delaying a drawdown of U.S. troops. He has also discussed a strategy of thinning out troops in secure areas and reinvesting them elsewhere, rather than bringing them home. Recent news reports further note that Petraeus has requested an additional 2,000 troops, 750 of whom will train Afghan security forces.

Moreover, Gen. James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, expressed similar apprehension over the timeline, saying that the Marine Corps would remain past July 2011 in southern Afghanistan and that the timeline had “given our enemy sustenance.” He stated that, “I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.”

Mixed messages aside, the Obama administration should stick to its timeline and begin drawing down some U.S. troops and transitioning areas to Afghan control in July 2011. At the same time, it should express more clearly that it will remain committed to Afghanistan far beyond the departure of combat troops to alleviate concerns over U.S. abandonment.

The timeline’s announcement may have cast some negative perceptions in Afghanistan and the region. But these disadvantages are outweighed by what the timeline potentially signals to key players in the region and around the world. This includes the following:

The timeline creates urgency for policymakers in Afghanistan and its neighbors, the United States, and NATO-ISAF countries. Strategic drift characterized U.S. policy in Afghanistan for more than seven years, and Afghanistan is now America’s longest war having lasted almost nine years. The timeline puts leaders around the world—and those at home—on notice that the United States will not stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. It also puts pressure on leaders in Afghanistan and other countries to increase their efforts to battle the insurgency, make necessary Afghan governmental reforms, and create political and diplomatic agreements within Afghanistan and with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

It refocuses attention on political and diplomatic components.The current strategy overemphasizes the military component to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan. The timeline should bring greater focus back to the political and diplomatic components of U.S. and NATO-ISAF strategy rather than long-term military intervention.

This strategic imbalance has occurred despite the assessments of military and civilian officials that the war in Afghanistan is being driven not only by an insurgency, but by a “crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community.” In former International Security Assistance Force commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s leaked assessment from 2009 he called for a strategy shift that placed responsive and accountable governance on the same level as battling the insurgency. As McChrystal stated, “A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution. This is their war and, in the end, ISAF’s competency will prove less decisive than the GIRoA’s [government of Afghanistan].”

Yet the current approach continues to neglect the political crisis at hand. The Karzai government operates on a highly centralized patronage model in which power and resources are principally channeled through Karzai’s political network and checks and balances on the government’s activities are largely absent. Afghans have little to no means to influence decision-making or hold officials accountable for poor performance or outright abuses of their power.

The Taliban insurgency has also outmaneuvered the Afghan government politically by promising swift dispute resolution, providing shadow governance, and using sophisticated propaganda, violence, and intimidation against those who cooperate with the Afghan government.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for U.S. and NATO-ISAF military forces to extend an Afghan government that citizens perceive as corrupt, abusive, and a puppet of foreign forces. Political reforms are thus required that create greater political cohesion and Afghan buy-in among Afghanistan’s fragmented society whether that be through decentralization, more power-sharing deals, increased accountability of government officials (including Afghan security forces), and/or greater representation of Afghans. The timeline should serve as a wake-up call to U.S. and NATO forces to make sure these reforms are put in place.

Additionally, the current strategy does not put enough emphasis on obtaining a diplomatic agreement among regional players. A stable, peaceful Afghanistan will depend on the support of countries in the region. The Afghan insurgency continues to possess a sanctuary in Pakistan from which to train, fundraise, recruit, and plan for operations. The Pakistani government has escalated attacks against the Pakistani Taliban over the past year, but it is widely believed that Pakistan’s military continues to make distinctions between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban and provides continued support to the former. The Afghan Taliban is still perceived as a potential ally to Pakistani interests over the long term as opposed to the current Karzai government, which is seen as too pro-India.

The Obama administration needs to lend as much urgency to bringing together Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, China, and others in a regional agreement over the future of Afghanistan as it does to battling the insurgents. The deadline should bring greater attention to these diplomatic concerns as the United States becomes more aware of what it will be leaving behind.

It expands U.S. leverage with the Afghan government by demonstrating our willingness to determine our own troop levels and involvement based on our assessment and not on the Afghan government’s. As currently constructed the Afghan government does not have sufficient Afghan support and suffers from a lack of legitimacy and capacity. It will most likely not survive a withdrawal of U.S. troops—whether that comes in 1, 5, or 15 years—if it remains on its current path.

The government must undertake reforms to expand its support whether through power sharing, diplomatic deals with its neighbors, and/or some process of decentralization. Knowing that the United States will not stay forever should provide an incentive for the Karzai government to create a political and regional dynamic in Afghanistan that is more sustainable. Of course, President Karzai may act otherwise, but the timeline shows the independence of the U.S. government from the Karzai government.

It increases the pressure on the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to take a leadership role in their own affairs. Ultimately, U.S. and NATO forces will not bring peace and stability to Afghanistan—Afghans will. Foreign governments cannot win counterinsurgencies, as Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Manual outlines. The host government must win it, and political factors are more important than the use of the military.

The manual states that, “Long-term success in COIN [counterinsurgency strategy] depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.” The United States, therefore, should not create a dangerous dependency dynamic where President Karzai’s government can hide behind international forces rather than taking charge of what’s going on in its own country.

The Afghan National Security Forces still suffer from a lack of capacity and structural problems such as rampant illiteracy, but their numbers and capabilities are growing, and they should be able to take on increasing responsibility. As of August 2010 the Afghan National Army numbered 134,000 soldiers and the Afghan National Police 109,000 recruits, up from about 192,000 security forces combined in November 2009 prior to the administration’s security review.

It acknowledges the high and unsustainable costs of the war.The U.S. military and U.S. economy is under serious strain after almost a decade of ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,246 American servicemembers have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and more than 7,000 have been wounded. Many troops are serving their third and fourth tours, with as many as 13,000 soldiers having spent three to four cumulative years at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Army. Suicide rates are disturbingly high—more than 1,100 Army soldiers and Marines killed themselves from 2005 to 2009.

Despite an increase in international troop levels, violence is at unprecedented levels in Afghanistan, with July 2010 the deadliest month on record for U.S. troops since the start of the war. Complex suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, assassinations of Afghan leaders, and civilian casualties have all increased in 2010.

The United States has spent more than $300 billion for military operations in Afghanistan since 2001. Many Americans question whether these costs in lives and money are worth the potential security gains in the midst of the U.S. economic crisis. What’s more, the majority of Americans (58 percent) now oppose the war in Afghanistan according to a CNN poll in September, and 59 percent in a Newsweek poll believe that we should begin withdrawing U.S. troops beginning in July 2011 or before.

Clearly there are no perfect solutions for Afghanistan. The timeline provides a reminder that we will not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely and that we should assist the Afghanistan government in creating something that will survive our withdrawal. President Karzai stated at the Kabul conference in July 2010 that the Afghan National Security Forces “should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.” The United States should begin this transition process starting next summer while recognizing that the United States will remain committed to Afghanistan and the region long after our troops are withdrawn.

Caroline Wadhams is the Director for South Asia Security Studies at American Progress.

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