The nation awaits President Obama's Afghanistan address later this evening,* in which he's expected to announce a draw-down of more than 30,000 US troops from that conflict by next spring. Bipartisan support and opposition to the decision is forming on both sides. (For a stinging conservative critique of the McCain/Lieberman "promiscuous interventionalist" position, read George Will's latest). The American public is undoubtedly restless over our military's Afghanistan campaign, which has stretched over a decade. Several observers have noted that Obama has scheduled the bulk of the withdrawal for the spring of an election year. Coincidence, or politics?
Reasonable, patriotic people can disagree over the efficacy, wisdom, and timing of US force reductions in Afghanistan. What's in our national interest? How might it affect our security? Could the Taliban's butchers seize control of the country again, creating another safe haven for a reconstituted post-Osama Al Qaeda? Would a rapid withdrawal jeopardize the small, hard-fought gains our recent surge achieved? These are serious questions that merit serious consideration. Some of the people in the best possible position to answer them are our military leaders on the ground. According to multiple reports, our generals -- including Gen. Petraeus -- are deeply concerned with the president's plan:
Mr. Obama announced plans to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The remaining 20,000 troops from the 2009 “surge” of forces would leave by next summer, amounting to about a third of the 100,000 troops now in the country. He said the drawdown would continue “at a steady pace” until the United States handed over security to the Afghan authorities in 2014.
The troop reductions, which were decided after a short but fierce internal debate, will be both deeper and faster than the recommendations made by Mr. Obama’s military commanders, and they will come as the president faces relentless budget pressures, an increasingly restive American public and a re-election campaign next year.
Mr. Obama’s decision is a victory for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long argued for curtailing the military operation in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama indicated a willingness to move toward more focused covert operations of the type that the United States is conducting in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. “When threatened, we must respond with force,” he said. “But when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.”
The pace of the withdrawal is a setback for the president’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has been named director of the Central Intelligence Agency. General Petraeus did not endorse the decision, said another official. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates argued publicly against a too-hasty withdrawal of troops, but he said in a statement on Wednesday that he supported Mr. Obama’s decision.
The press is reporting that the top military leaders have “endorsed” President Obama’s Afghan troop withdrawal decision. With all due respect to the fine reporters, that is not the news. Under our Constitution, military leaders have no choice but to endorse the president’s decision after giving him their best advice. They could resign, of course, but to have the entire senior military leadership resign over a president’s decision contrary to their advice would be a disaster, and not least for the troops on the ground.
Make no mistake, however. The entire military leadership believes the president’s decision is a mistake, and especially the decision to withdraw the remainder of the surge forces by September 2012. They will soldier on and do their best, but as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, put it, in characteristic understatement, they believe the decision will increase the risk to the troops and increase the chance that the mission will not succeed. It bears repeating that the deadline imposed by the president has nothing to do with military or strategic calculation. It has everything to do with an electoral calculation. President Obama wants those troops out two months before Americans go to the voting booth.
This may prove a disastrous political calculation, too, however. If the war is going badly in the summer and fall of 2012, it will be because of the decision the president made this week. Everyone will know he did it against the advice of his commanders. Everyone will know he did it for political reasons. So if the war is going badly a year from now, whom do you think the American people will blame? There will still be 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but as part of a losing effort. Will Americans reward Obama at the polls under those circumstances? This was a shortsighted decision from every perspective. There is still time for the president to fix it. He just needs to say that the deadline is flexible and depends on circumstances on the ground. That would go some way toward repairing the damage he has done.
The Petraeus camp's official word on the president's call? No comment.
Americans have every right to question whether this mission still requires inflated troop levels. We are sacrificing enormous amounts of national blood and treasure over there, and the public -- quite understandably -- has developed war fatigue. It is disquieting nonetheless to see the president unilaterally overruling his generals, top regional commander, and Defense Secretary on this matter. And yes, as Commander In Chief, it's absolutely his prerogative to do so; he was elected to make these sorts of decisions. But decisions have consequences, some dire. As Kagan writes, if our standing in Afghanistan tanks as a result of a hasty and/or political withdrawal, that will be on President Obama (and his Vice President, who's been consistently wrong on foreign policy).
It's also disconcerting to see the president disregarding the advice of his own legal counsel and his top military officials on two separate national security matters -- in the span of one week. He's concluded that his judgment is paramount. More important than the established reading of the War Powers Act, and more insightful than the opinions of his commanders on the ground. The American people will render our judgment on this president's judgment next year.
*UPDATE - As several emailers have pointed out, the president -- of course -- delivered his speech last night. (I started a preview post yesterday, then repurposed it today and forgot to take that passage out tonight prior to posting). The remainder of the analysis remains intact. I regret the confusion.