The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan has long been a contentious issue. The Obama Administration has announced a plan of withdrawing 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the fall of 2012. According to the much-publicized plan, 10,000 troops will be evacuated by the end of the current year, 2011, while another 23,000 will be gradually pulled out by the September of 2012 at the latest.
The withdrawal plans by the American government are entangled in a web of America's internal politics wherein politicians, President Obama included, need to be mindful of voters and the ballot box in the presidential elections set to be held in November, 2012. The announcement by President Obama outlining his administration's strategy of withdrawing one third of American troops from Afghanistan is in line with the compulsions of America's internal politics.
As I discuss in the following lines, upon the completion of the 33,000 troops pullout and after the American presidential elections get over by November of 2012, the course of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan will be once again determined by the actual realities on the ground and free from electoral pressures of the U.S.'s internal politics.
It is interesting to know that the month of September 2012, earmarked by the Obama Administration as the time by which the last soldiers of the 33,000 batch will leave Afghanistan, happens to be the eve of the presidential elections in the United States when President Obama is seeking re-election.
The months of September and October are the most decisive period in the run-up to the November 6, 2012 presidential elections when the presidential debates take place and each candidate, Obama included, will focus on showing to the American nation their achievements and reasons why Americans should choose him over his rivals.
Interestingly, the month of September is when the 2012 Democratic National Convention also takes place; an event which will mark the start of the most critical phase of the elections. President Obama will face the American electorate in September and during the decisive presidential debates thereafter with a feather in his cap: having brought 33,000 American troops back home from an unpopular war in keeping with his earlier promise to the nation.
President Obama, as are his Generals, is well aware of the difficulties of the war in Afghanistan and the crucial need to preserve the American military strength on the battlefields even as the transition process to Afghan National Security Forces gradually unfolds. American Generals have time and again stressed the inescapable necessity of keeping American forces on the ground in large enough numbers to keep the military pressure on the Taliban high at a time when they have to be coerced into sitting for negotiations.
Leon Panetta, the new American Secretary of Defense, inadvertently revealed the Obama Administration's plans for troop drawdown beyond the initial 33,000 when he said that the U.S. will keep 70,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In a press conference after his meeting with President Karzai, he, perhaps unwittingly, drew the contours of the future American military engagement in Afghanistan by implying that after the 33,000 troops withdrawal, there will not be any major drawdown until the end of 2014: "we're going to have 70,000 there through 2014, and obviously, as we get to 2014, we'll develop a plan as to how we reduce that force at that time…for at least the next two years we're going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face."
This statement by Mr. Panetta is in direct contradiction with the policy announcement by President Obama in which he said the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be completed by the end of 2014. Going by the way politics in America is conducted and having examined the historical precedents of American military engagements abroad, it is Leon Panetta's inadvertent disclosure that rings more true than the announcements of President Obama in his address to the American nation.
In actuality, after the presidential elections of November 2012, the American policymakers including the military will have ample time until the next presidential elections in 2016 to let the on-the-ground compulsions of the war and Washington's internal politics to determine the course of the war rather than the fear of voters' backlash at the ballot box. In such a context, it is not surprising to hear the American Secretary of Defense saying that his country, after pulling out the first 33,000 troops in keeping with Obama's announcement, will keep the remaining 70,000 troops until the end of 2014.
This renders as politically-savvy rhetoric the announcements by President Obama underlining the imperative of bringing the entire troops back to U.S. by 2014 and "focusing on nation-building here at home".
Keeping the remaining 70,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan is what the realities of the war against the Taliban here in Afghanistan require. The slow pace of preparing the Afghan National Security Forces to take the lead in the war; accelerating withdrawal of troops by other countries; Taliban and other militant groups' sustained momentum to establish their influence in large swaths of Afghanistan; failure in taking firm action against the militants' safe havens across the border in Pakistan's tribal areas and the need to sustain the fragile economy of Afghanistan which continues to be heavily dependent on international forces' military-related spending are outstanding issues that do not permit premature withdrawal of American forces.
While the American long-term military presence in Afghanistan at least until 2024 – as reflected in the strategic agreement with the U.S. now under discussion – in the form of long-term military bases is what the U.S. is bent to achieve at any cost, it is important to focus on the goal of building a capable and independent Afghan National Army on which Afghanistan can rely for providing security and keeping the militant groups at bay.
In the end, there can be no escaping the need to a self-sufficient Afghan National Army that is capable of independent action. This is so since the long-term American military presence in Afghanistan can make the Afghan National Army too dependent on and at the mercy of the U.S. It is again up to the political competence, patriotic fervor and responsible conduct of the Afghan leadership to stand up for the Afghan National Army and provide the resources needed to make this force capable of independent action in the interest of the country.