Drawdown in Afghanistan

Commentary | February 09, 2012

Writing for Pakistan's The News International, EWI Board Member Ikram Sehgal assesses the implications of the earlier than expected U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Click here to read this column in The News International.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta raised a storm signalling that US and Nato troops in Afghanistan will transition from a combat role to a “training, assist and advice” role by late 2013, a year earlier than the mandated 2014 schedule. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had earlier railed against US troops fighting a war of independence for another nation.

Political expediency now dictated his calling Panetta’s withdrawal announcement “misguided” and “naive.” “Why should you tell the people you are fighting with the date you are pulling out your troops?” Echoing his sentiments Senator John McCain said none of the US military commanders had recommended the drawdown. The US commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John R Allen, cautioned that “the drawdown schedule is more aggressive than anticipated.”

Ambiguity is bedevilling US strategic decision-making for the last 50 years. How to come up with correct geopolitical conclusions when politics comes into conflict with military objectives? President Obama cautioned against setting goals beyond US responsibility, the means thereof and the primary US interest. President Eisenhower lived by the premise: “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader context, the need to maintain balance in and among national programmes.” Less than three months after becoming president in 1961, an inexperienced Kennedy caused the “Bay of Pigs” disaster.

He redeemed his reputation in 1962 by imposing a naval “quarantine,” foiling the Soviet attempt to put land-based medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba that would have permitted them to attack the US mainland almost without warning. Kennedy did not listen to his generals wanting an immediate pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, which would certainly have led to a nuclear holocaust. The public showdown was matched by concurrent secret diplomatic talks leading to reciprocal US withdrawal of its missiles from Italy and Turkey.

Obama’s 2008 platform called for lifting the US economy out of the dumps into which it was sinking and getting the US out of the Iraq and Afghan cauldrons. A full US review of the options saw his military and civilian advisors hopelessly divided about Afghanistan. His commanders in the field, Generals Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, recommended a “military surge” to combat the Taliban. Others, led by Vice President Joseph Biden, counselled a staged withdrawal. Obama’s instinct was to cut US losses and exit Afghanistan, but he chose not to second guess his military advisors and opted for the middle course of a limited military surge, with the caveat being a 2014 withdrawal date beginning in stages in mid-2011.

The Afghan escalation in 2010 duplicated the escalation of the Vietnam War, strategically incoherent and not supporting any overriding interest or purpose. The military promised a better job in stabilising Afghanistan and restoring peace, but without really forensically examining what the job actually was or should be. Forced into resigning for making inappropriate remarks about his civilian superiors in the chain of command, McChrystal’s much-trumpeted foray into Helmand province fell far short of accomplishing the desired results. Gen Petraeus took ownership by stepping down from his Central Command appointment to take over. Without real success in any of his stated objectives in Afghanistan, Petraeus has since retired, to head the CIA.

Lt Col Daniel Davis, into his fourth combat deployment (and his second in Afghanistan) wrote in his article “Truth, Lies and Afghanistan” in The Armed Forces Journal: “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by US military leaders about conditions on the ground. I am hardly the only one who has noted the discrepancy between official statements and the truth on the ground. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted that the ISAF and the US leadership failed to report accurately on the reality of the situation in Afghanistan.

Since June 2010, the unclassified reporting the US does provide has steadily shrunk in content, effectively ‘spinning’ the road to victory by eliminating content that illustrates the full scale of the challenges ahead. They (the military leadership) were driven by political decisions to ignore or understate Taliban and insurgent gains from 2002 to 2009, to ignore the problems caused by weak and corrupt Afghan governance, to understate the risks posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan, and to ‘spin’ the value of tactical ISAF victories while ignoring the steady growth of Taliban influence and control.”

Col Davis asks: “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding and behind an array of more than seven years of optimistic statements by US senior leaders in Afghanistan? No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect-and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve-to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.” Those doubts are widely shared, if not usually voiced in public, by officers on active duty.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) requires $4.7 billion annually, approximately 447 percent of government revenues. An understandable burden, but a mismatch of both the performance level expected and the fiscal calculations about the country’s anticipated revenues in the future. The IMF estimated $6 billion yearly on the civilian side for the next five years, and even till 2023, $15-20 billion is additionally required annually for the Special Operations Command (SOC) that will take up the slack when Coalition forces gradually scale back combat operations. Given the current US economic realities, who is going to foot the bill?

According to Obama, “the current US deployment in Afghanistan is neither a ‘counter-insurgency’ nor ‘nation building.’ The costs of doing either would be prohibitive.” His contention is that the resetting of strategic balance by the US will mean the scaling back of strategic interests but that the US will remain a global power with an essential leadership role to play. Obama cites an unlikely source, The World America Made by Robert Kagan. The key Romney policy advisor says that overreaction to short-term events-including the financial crisis – overlooks the continued economic, military and political dominance by the US, but “the US could still slip into decline if it slashes the military spending too dramatically."

Panetta’s drawdown pronouncement gives Obama the ability in an election year to claim that instead of a precipitous withdrawal he would be phasing out the war in Afghanistan like he successfully managed to in Iraq. Our problem is that the US can opt out of a tough neighbourhood, albeit both at moral and material cost (more importantly that of reputation), we can’t! However we can hold accountable those leaders who got us into this mess and those who kept us there. To paraphrase Col Davis, the Pakistani soldiers living, fighting and dying at 10-12 times the Coalition ratio deserve their leaders to tell them the truth. 

Pakistan cannot shed tears over something it has no control over, US strategic decision-making and mistakes thereof. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to gear up to cope with the residual eventualities, preferably in 2014, or in a worst-case scenario, even earlier by the end of 2013.