POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 24, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
The more hawkish on Capitol Hill are pronouncing President Barack Obama's Afghanistan drawdown timetable too rapid, putting the hard-won security gains of American and allied troops at risk. Others, many of whom view the entire Afghan war effort with skepticism, say the plan to start shuttling 33,000 troops home should have been accelerated.
When criticism comes from both sides, people often suggest that means you've got things about right. While it's naive to apply such a simple analysis to complex and momentous circumstances like this, what can be said is that nobody knows the precise formula for success in this treacherous battle zone. At the very least, "victory" in the classic Western military sense is elusive in Afghanistan, if it exists at all. It certainly has eluded a parade of war commanders over the centuries.
So Obama, all the hectoring from the right and left notwithstanding, has made a rational decision to balance the very real concerns for domestic economic conditions with the duty to manage the risk to remaining U.S. troops. While pulling up stakes completely is unrealistic — allowing acute instability in the backyard of Pakistan, a nuclear power, should be a nonstarter — there must be a limit to the military lives and financial resources invested in a nation so many years out of step with the 21st century.
Administration officials said this plan falls within the range of what's doable, as defined by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Kabul, even though most of the brass would have preferred slowing down the pace of withdrawal considerably. Military officials had argued for a surge of up to 80,000 troops in 2009, and some impressive improvements have been achieved by adding less than half that number. So the commander-in-chief can reasonably whittle down the Defense Department wish list. Pentagon-watchers say departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates advocated this middle path; this may have been a final service to country in an illustrious career.
Critics correctly charge that Obama included political considerations in his calculations. That's undeniable. Any president seeking a second term a little more than a year from now will want to fulfill a 2009 promise by starting to draw down. That's especially true with polls showing most Americans growing tired of war, and the decade-old Afghanistan venture in particular.
But what's also undeniable is that it's Obama's job to consider broader security interests than a single military theater. Troops are being overextended as it is. With political uprisings across the Middle East threatening to become a regional inferno, with China looming as an armed contender across the Pacific, Afghanistan has to be prodded into greater self-reliance. After the initial increment of 10,000 is sent home, the challenge of the commanders in Kabul will be to hold the line against the Taliban while the diplomatic teams redouble efforts to broker a political accord. The government-Taliban conflict must be the Afghans' to settle, not ours.
It's unclear precisely which units will rotate back to the U.S. first. Hawaii, with more than 5,000 troops deployed, would cheer the homecoming of its own, but celebrations are in order for all the returning warriors. The nation owes them thanks and support in finding their niche in civilian employment.
And as for the financial treasure America hopes to be saving, that could be put to good use spurring U.S. job creation and economic recovery.
"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," Obama said in his Wednesday address.
He's right. That is where the national spotlight must turn now.