In what he has called “the beginning, but not the end, of our effort to wind down this war,” President Barack Obama has announced the withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of September 2012. He has rejected the advice of his top generals in choosing a quicker pace to end the Afghan war and drawn criticism from both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill. Most experts are concerned that the recent security gains are tenuous and reversible, and had recommended that troop numbers be kept high until 2013, giving the Americans another full fighting season to attack militant strongholds and their leaders. But it seems Obama has set a withdrawal date based purely on political considerations. Having to choose between satisfying the Pentagon that demands he leave enough boots on the ground to finish the job, and placating Congress and the American public who want an end to the longest war in the country’s history, Obama has chosen the latter. For most Americans, the war makes even less sense now that Osama bin Laden is dead. The enormous cost of deployment and human lives has attracted criticism from Congressional leaders as well as the public. As a president running for re-election, Obama needed to reassure the American public that the end of the war was near. And that’s what he has done.
But outside of politics, doubts have emerged over the point of such a withdrawal, especially given the tense and deteriorating security situation in northern Afghanistan. Though President Karzai has welcomed Obama’s announcement, Afghan security insiders are well aware that the Afghan National Army is a long way from being up to the security challenge. A swift withdrawal could also sabotage the counterinsurgency plan Obama adopted in 2009, which requires the US and allied forces to hold areas in southern Afghanistan that have been cleared of the Taliban and to sweep the eastern provinces that have not yet been reached by the counterinsurgency campaign. Most importantly, troop withdrawal is likely to be accompanied by cuts in billions of dollars of civilian aid, bringing a steep shift of control which many fear could tip Afghanistan into further corruption and chaos. In sum, Obama’s plan appears to be driven purely by political calculus rather than military strategy. But winning the public’s approval will not end the war, or the chaos left in the wake of US soldiers marching home.