In 1966, as President Johnson was becoming ever more enmeshed in the war in Vietnam, a Republican senator from Vermont named George D. Aiken proposed an audacious alternative strategy. The United States, Aiken said, should declare victory and withdraw.
At the time, some believed Aiken was joking, but the senator was quite serious, and his proposal was considerably more subtle than it sounded. The United States, he said, should stop seeking objectives that were beyond its reach and focus on doing whatever was necessary to reach a negotiated solution it could live with.
There was an element of Aikenism in President Obama's announcement last week that the time had come to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and to do it a little faster than some of his generals wanted.
Even as U.S. forces continue to battle on the ground in Afghanistan, White House aides told reporters that the president's decision was based on the success of U.S. and allied forces over the past 18 months. Reducing the number of troops reflects military progress, the White House said, not reverses.
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But more important, Obama staffers were insistent in noting that the United States has limited goals in Afghanistan — far more limited than when we entered the war a decade ago. In those days, the administration of President Bush hoped to turn the war-wracked country into a rapidly modernizing democracy.
Now, the goal is to make sure Afghanistan can't be turned again into a staging ground for terrorism directed against the United States or Pakistan.
"It is important to note that defeating the Taliban is not the objective here," Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.
Instead, officials said, the objective is to negotiate a deal with the now-weakened Taliban, one that could see some of the Islamist insurgents return to a role in Afghanistan's government.
A White House official said Obama hoped that Americans would see his speech as a "pivot point" in the almost 10-year-old war — as the moment when the United States shifted from increasing the number of its troops in Afghanistan to bringing them home.
The timetable presented by the White House covered only about a third of the roughly 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan: the 33,000 who were sent in the "surge" Obama ordered at the end of 2009. But the official said the president wants withdrawals to continue even after the surge troops are out.
This withdrawal timetable is no rush for the exits. Under Obama's calendar, there will still be about 67,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the fall of 2012. And U.S. officials are talking increasingly of a long-term commitment of military trainers, advisers and others that would remain for many years.
Will this plan work? It's far too early to say, of course. The parts of the puzzle that are most susceptible to applications of U.S. military power (tracking down and killing Taliban leaders and training Afghan army troops) appear to be going well. The nonmilitary parts don't. Those include nudging Afghanistan's civilian government toward more efficiency and less corruption, and persuading Taliban leaders to negotiate an end to the war.
Obama's decision is a gamble, but so are many decisions in war. If Afghans on both sides conclude that the United States is leaving the battlefield and the Taliban resurges, the president's choice won't look brilliant. But if the U.S. military's assessments of the Taliban are accurate, that's not likely to happen.