President Obama must soon choose whether to order a "significant" withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan — as he promised — or content himself with a token drawdown. After nearly a decade of war and a troop buildup that seems to have produced results, the president should abide by his commitment, even if it means overriding his military advisors.
In December 2009, when he authorized a surge of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, raising the U.S. force level to 100,000, Obama said he would begin a withdrawal in July 2011. But almost from the beginning, his advisors in the Pentagon have made it plain that they want a minimal withdrawal — perhaps 5,000 or 10,000 troops. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates signaled that preference during a farewell visit to Afghanistan last week. Noting that U.S. forces had made headway, he added that "I think we need to keep the pressure on." Gates' designated successor, Leon E. Panetta, said in his confirmation hearing Thursday that he backed Obama's call for a "significant" drawdown but that it should be "responsible." He described the recent gains as "fragile and reversible," a code phrase also used by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and Ryan C. Crocker, Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Afghanistan.
The gains in question include the pacification of the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, formerly under the sway of the Taliban. But the fact that those accomplishments are "fragile and reversible" doesn't necessarily mean that a significant withdrawal would undo them. What the United States needs to do in the event of a sizable drawdown is to decide on priorities for its remaining forces and accelerate its training of the Afghan military, which is supposed to take over responsibility for security in 2014.
It's worth remembering that even a significant withdrawal will leave thousands of American forces in Afghanistan to maintain pressure on the Taliban as the United States explores the possibility of a negotiated solution. In presenting options to Obama, Petraeus is supposed to describe the consequences of withdrawals of different levels. Although Petraeus' preference is almost surely for a smaller withdrawal, that exercise will no doubt include a scenario in which gains on the ground could be maintained with a smaller footprint.
Some advocates of a significant withdrawal point to the death of Osama bin Laden as a reason for a smaller U.S. presence. That doesn't strike us as a very persuasive argument, because Al Qaeda sympathizers in Afghanistan and elsewhere don't require orders from Bin Laden to commit acts of terrorism. But Bin Laden's death is a reminder that the United States went into Afghanistan to punish and disable the movement that plotted 9/11. Ten years later, the mission is more ambitious, the U.S. is more deeply entangled in Afghanistan and the military's objectives often seem elusive. Even as he expressed hope for further progress, Crocker at his confirmation hearings offered this sobering evaluation of the current state of affairs: "Enormous challenges remain: governance; rule of law, including corruption, which undermines economic growth and the credibility of the Afghan state; narcotics; sustainable economic development, including adequate employment opportunities, increased revenues along with the capacity for the government to provide basic services, such as education and healthcare."
In supporting a significant troop withdrawal in July, we are influenced by the state of the Afghan enterprise as a whole. If maintaining a relatively larger military presence in that country promised fulfillment of U.S. objectives in a reasonable time, our thinking would be different. But after a decade, and despite some successes, the mission has been a disappointment. There have been military successes, but the Taliban retains its influence over several parts of the country. There has been some progress toward building a civil society and increasing educational opportunity (especially for girls), but those efforts continue to encounter resistance. The government of the mercurial President Hamid Karzai, supposedly a partner of the United States, is only sporadically cooperative and is rife with corruption.
We still hope that the "fragile and reversible" military gains are preserved and that the challenges mentioned by Crocker can be mastered. But we also agree with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that "while the United States has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment, in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable." A significant withdrawal of U.S. forces next month would better balance responsibilities with resources.