Counting down in Afghanistan

We are only weeks away from President Obama’s announced troop drawdown in Afghanistan. But with the scheduled withdrawal supposed to begin July 1, the president has not yet decided on whether the number will be “significant” — his words — or “modest,” in the words of the Defense secretary, Robert Gates.

I heard a couple weeks ago that about 20,000 soldiers, or two-thirds of the “surge” troops, were expected to return home next month. But that is considerably higher than the anticipation now that only about 5,000 would return — the argument being that it would be a mistake to sharply reduce troop numbers during the Taliban’s fighting season. Gates, making his farewell tour of Afghanistan, has said that he would opt to “keep the shooters and take the support out first.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants only 3,000 out.

The New York Times has reported that Vice President Biden and others are pushing for a bigger reduction, on the grounds that the killing of Osama bin Laden — in Pakistan — justifies a switch to counterterrorism in Afghanistan. It’s the same old story about the pols, who have their eye on the election cycle, versus the military, who say, “Just give us more time, we’re nearly winning.”

Although the White House spokesman insists that the decision will be based on national-security grounds, it has not escaped anyone’s notice that the current counterinsurgency policy is costing the Pentagon $2 billion per week.

Although public opinion is now more favorable to continuing the war, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the same survey said nearly three in four Americans want the administration to remove a “substantial number” of troops this summer.

Where does Obama stand? We’ll find out “fairly soon,” says his spokesman, Jay Carney. Funny, though, that in his speech in London on May 25, the president almost seemed to be speaking about the country in the past tense. “In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban's momentum, and will soon begin a transition to Afghan lead,” he said.

On Afghanistan, we don’t need another speech, but a policy, including an exit strategy. When Obama describes his timeline, I’d like to hear not only about talking to the Taliban, but how Afghanistan’s neighbors are going to help negotiate a settlement. Afghanistan’s future will only be stable and secure if a diplomatic “surge” — involving Iran, India, Pakistan and others — follows the military one.

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