Rethinking the timeline in Afghanistan

President Obama may accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a move that would put him at odds with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

What happened

The White House is considering an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, prompted by the death of Osama bin Laden and the war’s cost of more than $2 billion a week, according to reports this week. President Obama’s national security team is advocating a rapid drawdown of the 30,000 “surge” troops that were ordered into the country in late 2009, paving the way for the removal of all 70,000 combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. Such a move would leave only 25,000 support troops in place to hand over power to Afghan forces by the previously agreed deadline of 2014. Many on both sides in Congress have been clamoring for a hastier retreat along those lines. “Bin Laden is dead,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.). “Declare victory and come home.”

But that approach would put the president at odds with the Defense Department’s calls for a more measured withdrawal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who retires this month, insists that combat troops should remain in Afghanistan until the 2014 handover. “I’d opt to keep the shooters and take the support out first,” he said. Gates’s position was strengthened this week by the release of a U.S. Senate report warning that U.S. efforts to build a stable government and effective security forces in Afghanistan might be undone by a rapid departure. Obama would only say that the coming months would be a “summer of transition,” but added, “We have now accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish 10 years ago.”

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What the editorials said

You can see why Obama might be tempted to speed up the drawdown, said The Dallas Morning News. Voters don’t like the war, Congress doesn’t want to keep paying for it, and the man responsible for starting it is dead. But it would be foolish of the president to ignore the advice of Robert Gates, a “reasonable, pragmatic defense secretary who understands the real-world effects of policy decisions.” If Gates says we’re not there yet, perhaps it’s too soon to be “backing out the door.”

But we can’t afford to stay there any longer, said The Seattle Times. We have already spent $459.8 billion fighting the Afghanistan war, and that bill is rising by about $10 billion a month. That is a “simply stunning” sum to be spending trying to fix a broken country, while we’ve got an economic crisis at home.

What the columnists said

The situation on the ground favors a quicker exit, said Joe Klein in Time. U.S. troops have driven the enemy out of its “natural heartland” of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, making reconciliation talks with the Taliban “more plausible.” And while the Afghan National Army “ain’t the 101st Airborne,” it should be strong enough by the end of 2012 to prevent the Taliban from retaking control of the country. The end to the war will “begin in earnest’’ by the close of this year.

If we cut and run now, said Kimberly and Frederick Kagan in The Wall Street Journal, we risk losing all the progress we’ve made. “The fight is approaching its peak,” and we are on the verge of securing all of the country’s southern cities for the first time since 2001. “This is the time to press the fight,” not quit. Pulling out now would also pose a grave risk for neighboring Pakistan, said Trudy Rubin in The Philadelphia Inquirer. That country’s civilian government is fragile, and its “military is infiltrated by Islamists.” Militants there would only be emboldened by a “U.S. rush to the Afghan exits.”

We aren’t going to win this war, said Henry Kissinger in The Washington Post. The surge has “reached its limit” of effectiveness, and our best alternative now is to negotiate with the Taliban. But if those talks are to succeed, we must keep up the military pressure. “The more rapid and substantial the immediate withdrawal, the more difficult the negotiating process will be.” In the meantime, Obama must persuade other countries in the region that the outcome in Afghanistan is “an international political problem,” not an American one. “Every neighbor would be threatened,” including China and Russia, if militant Islam isn’t checked in Afghanistan.

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