U.S. military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan had reportedly requested a slower pace of withdrawal to afford them the opportunity to consolidate recent gains against Taliban insurgents. President Obama has denied his military commanders flexibility to determine the pace and scope of withdrawal based on conditions on the ground, and instead appears to have based his decision largely around the U.S. domestic political calendar.
The plans for rapidly withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan also risks upending the major achievement of eliminating Osama bin Laden across the border in Pakistan.
Bin Laden’s death and an aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal border areas have put al-Qaeda on its back foot. The Administration deserves credit for accomplishing this crucial objective.
However, it is short-sighted to use bin Laden’s death as justification for hastening the U.S. troop draw down in Afghanistan. Announcing rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces will likely bolster the morale of the Taliban and encourage them to stick with the fight. Since al-Qaeda has not yet dissolved as an organization and its relationship with the Taliban remains strong, reducing military pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan could benefit al-Qaeda and provide it a lifeline at a critical juncture in the fight against terrorism.
The withdrawal plan will signal to both our Afghan allies and enemy forces that the U.S. is more committed to withdrawing its forces than the long-term goal of stabilizing the country. The U.S. made a grave error in turning its back on Afghanistan after the Soviets departed in 1989. President Obama’s speech will stoke fears that the U.S. is getting ready to repeat a similar mistake.
Obama’s announcement on rapid troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will further discourage Pakistan from cracking down on the Taliban leadership that finds sanctuary on its soil. The speech will reinforce Islamabad’s calculation that the U.S. is losing resolve in the fight in Afghanistan and thus encourage Pakistani military leaders to continue to hedge on support to the Taliban to protect their own national security interests.