President Obama announced the size of the withdrawal from Afghanistan after a bruising internal debate within the administration. Proponents of a fast, immediate drawdown have been making essentially two arguments, neither especially compelling.
There is the fiscal argument: We can't afford the cost of the war effort. It's true that we are facing a budget crunch, but the savings from a large withdrawal now would be negligible.
The debate in the administration has been over how fast to bring home 30,000 "surge" troops out of a total force of 100,000. Even if all 30,000 were withdrawn tomorrow — which has not been on the table — we would save only a small part of the $107 billion the war is set to cost next year, and that would have no appreciable impact on a $3.7 trillion federal budget or the $14.3 trillion debt.
The strategic argument for a fast drawdown is premised on the claim that al-Qaida is already crippled and therefore we have nothing to fear by pulling 10,000 or more troops out of Afghanistan this summer, another 10,000 early next year and 10,000 more by the end of 2012. If White House leaks are to be believed, some senior administration officials concluded that the counterinsurgency campaign launched only last year is a waste of time; all we need to do is rely on targeted air and commando strikes of the kind that have devastated al-Qaida's senior leadership in Pakistan.
What that argument misses is the extent to which our presence in Afghanistan enables us to project power into Pakistan. It was from Afghanistan, after all, that the Navy SEALs took off to kill Osama bin Laden. If we pull back in Afghanistan, the Taliban will gain ground and the willingness of the Afghan government to provide us the bases we need will decline. That, in turn, will make it markedly more difficult to keep the pressure on al-Qaida and prevent it from regenerating itself as it has in the past.
Moreover, we shouldn't get overly fixated on al-Qaida. Admittedly, it is the terrorist group that has had the most success in targeting the American homeland. But it is hardly the only threat to the United States and our interests. It would be a catastrophe if we were to pull out prematurely from Afghanistan and allow groups like the Haqqani network and the Taliban — both closely linked to al-Qaida — to come to power. That would not only allow Afghanistan to once again become a base for terrorists but would also endanger the already fragile situation in Pakistan.
The administration can argue that even after we pull out all of the surge forces, we would have 70,000 troops in Afghanistan, considerably more than were there when President Bush left office. But that is scant comfort because in 2009, the Taliban was on the verge of taking over southern Afghanistan. The surge has allowed coalition commanders to roll back Taliban gains in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. But the current progress is tentative and uncertain. Pull out a substantial number of our forces now, and the success of the entire war effort is thrown into jeopardy.
Counterinsurgency is a manpower-intensive exercise. We barely have enough troops in Afghanistan to carry out the plan devised by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and revised by Army Gen. David Petraeus. With a significant drawdown, it will become impossible to secure the civilian population, even in the south much less in the east, which is the next vital area of operations. The Taliban can then infiltrate back into onetime strongholds from which it has only recently been ejected.
Psychology is also important: Most Afghans, like people anywhere caught in a civil war, are fence sitters. They are trying to divine who will win before they decide which side it is safe to support. With the surge and the resulting counterinsurgency campaign, the coalition has grabbed crucial momentum. If Obama orders deep troop drawdowns, it will be taken as a sign by Afghans that we are not serious about winning the war. That, in turn, will make it much harder for our remaining troops to win cooperation from scared civilians and will make it correspondingly easier for the Taliban to recover lost ground.
It is hard to see why the president would be willing to take actions now that would jeopardize the success of one of his signature policies: the war effort in Afghanistan. If he keeps our surge forces intact, and if things go badly anyway, he will to some extent be absolved of blame because he can claim to have followed the best military advice available. But if he disregards the advice to limit the drawdown this year and next, and if things then go badly (as they easily could), the resulting fiasco will be entirely on his shoulders.
Whether from a political or a strategic standpoint, the smart course now is to continue to give the surge time to work. Anything else is shortsighted advice that is likely to come back to haunt the president.