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.
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.
- It refocuses attention on political and diplomatic components.
- 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.
- It increases the pressure on the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to take a leadership role in their own affairs.
- It acknowledges the high and unsustainable costs of the war.
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.
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