All of this means the glass is still half-empty for those eager to see an end to a conflict that has gone sadly adrift.
Rather than an accelerated withdrawal, Obama’s maneuver may actually permit the military to keep the bulk of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for most of 2013. The plan allows commanders to determine the pace of the reductions, which means it is likely that most forces will remain in Afghanistan through the end of the 2013 “fighting season.”
Obama’s benchmark allows commanders to continue dragging their feet on troop withdrawals, rather than making the tough, but necessary, decision to move troops out at the “steady pace” Obama promised in May.
The reluctance to speed up withdrawal is understandable – with Afghanistan far from stable, and the insurgency resilient, it may seem that we have much work left to do. But the uncomfortable truth is that U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan have failed. There is no indication that those efforts will fare any better in 2013 than they did over the past decade.
The Pentagon recently reported that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades can operate without NATO support. And that’s after NATO lowered its readiness requirements for Afghan brigades, because meeting the original standards was too difficult.
The Pentagon was also pessimistic about efforts to curb the insurgency, reporting: “Despite the tactical progress of ANSF-ISAF joint operations, the insurgency remains adaptable with a regenerative capacity.”
Our mission has not succeeded. There is no reason to keep thousands of American troops in harm’s way for months or years to come when there is no evidence that this time will make a difference.
Indeed, this fruitless effort will continue for years: training the Afghan army and counter-terrorism are the long-term missions that the president outlined for U.S. troops after the war officially ends in 2014. It is questionable whether tens of thousands of troops are needed for these tasks.
There is another major question that the president’s speech left unanswered: How many U.S. troops will remain after December 2014, and what will their role be? The public deserves to hear a reasoned explanation of why more American lives should remain at risk, and for how long.
In 2010, John McCain criticized Obama’s Afghanistan policy, arguing that the President needed to evaluate “facts on the ground” when making decisions about troop withdrawals. Here are facts from the ground: the buildup of the Afghan forces is nowhere near on track and the insurgency is strong. Meanwhile, large numbers of American veterans suffer from PTSD, and our military is facing a suicide epidemic.
Those are the real facts. We are paying a painfully high cost to keep more troops in Afghanistan for longer – with few, if any, benefits. The president’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but he needs to do much more to fulfill his promise to end a war that’s gone on for far too long.
Isaacs is the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World; he has represented the Council on Capitol Hill since 1978.
Sahay is the Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.