President Barack Obama took a step in the right direction this evening by announcing the start of U.S. troop reductions in Afghanistan. This follows 10 years of U.S. and NATO investment, which has severely degraded Al Qaeda capabilities in the region and led to the successful tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden. Yet many important questions about Afghanistan, including our core objectives, future costs, how military operations will support the political and military transition between now and 2014, and our relations with Pakistan, remain unanswered.
The Obama administration made an important move to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan in 2009. As a result, the U.S. military has achieved security gains in parts of Afghanistan, and the intelligence community has been relentless in its disruption of the Al Qaeda terror network.
It is from this position of strength that we can now rebalance our investment in Afghanistan. American military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel serving in the region have shouldered the burden for the past 10 years. The United States still spends $10 billion a month in Afghanistan, at a time when it cannot invest in its own infrastructure at home. This expenditure—six times Afghanistan’s own GDP—has fostered a dysfunctional culture of dependency.
Completing the mission in Afghanistan must now shift to Afghan leadership. At this time, U.S. strategy must focus on balancing internal Afghan reconciliation, obtaining support from regional powers, and setting critical benchmarks that measure the civil and military transitions to Afghanistan and its government. If these benchmarks are not met, U.S. officials must prepare for a more accelerated drawdown. Fighting the insurgency on behalf of a government that is unwilling to reform will not work, and will not advance the security interests of the United States or of our allies.
The Center has argued that a significant drawdown of at least 15,000 troops this year is necessary to balance our priorities and send the message to Afghanistan’s leaders that they must take on greater responsibility for their country. This would allow us to withdraw 60,000 troops over the next 18 months, leaving 40,000 remaining in the country by the end of 2012. We believe that while the administration could be more aggressive in terms of troop reductions, the president’s announcement to move 33,000 troops out by September 2012 is wholly justified by America’s national security interests.
Serious challenges and significant questions remain on the transition of responsibility to the Afghan government. To honor the service and sacrifices of those serving in Afghanistan, the Obama administration needs to fill in these gaps in the current strategy.