So, just a few tweets of mine last night as I reacted to the news after a day of driving to and from Ottawa to interview a general and have a beer with Roland Paris, with some elaboration as necessary.
First, Obama has a better sense of timing than the Canadians or Dutch. The big steps down in the US presence occur after fighting season while the two early departers (and then returners*) set July and August for their withdrawals.
* I need to spend a bit of time writing up one of the bits I developed from my visit to the Netherlands about how Afghanistan is not unlike the Hotel California--you can check out anytime you'd like, but you can never leave. Both Canada and Netherlands had decisions this year to send training missions to Afghanistan.Of course, Obama's decision, like the Canadian one, about timing was political. That it means he keeps his various promises before the next election.
Which gets to a second set of tweets: that the decision was political and not military. While Clausewitz may be obsolete as a strategist (and dead, too), the definition of war as politics by other means still stands. So, to say that the decision was not military ignores the fundamental reality that all war is political and COIN is doubly so. In so many ways, but two stand out here: that Obama is doing this to play to the domestic audience and that COIN involves not just killing people but getting support for the government. Regarding the former, duh. To keep the war going, Obama needed to throw a bone or two to Congress, which is increasingly frustrated with the war.**
** Perhaps Obama should have submitted the Libyan endeavor to more Congressional involvement to get more support for the Afghan war, but he has not. Frustrates the hell out of me, but I do kind of see the point of not willing to have the GOP play politics with it. On the other hand, wouldn't it be a good thing to force GOP to either look like they were playing politics with it or having them support it? Like Ryan's Medicare plan, part two? Another post, I guess.Which leads to my big conclusion of the moment: the planned withdrawals were big enough to meet the promises he had made when he started the surge but delayed enough not to impact operations that much until 2012. It is true that this will make it harder to re-deploy and shift the focus to Eastern Afghanistan as the military had hoped. But that could still happen. The twitter folk are focusing on comments made by senior admin official, but if things work out well on the ground (big, big if), one can see redeployments as the speech does not prohibit that..
One of my greatest frustrations has been that we wasted so much time. Whenever anyone says we have been doing "this" for ten years, I want to scream. We have been doing stuff in Afghanistan since 2001, but not real efforts to fight the insurgency with enough troops and a good strategy and reasonably coherent NATO command and control All of this really started in 2009. Five years (with 2014 as the new deadline, more or less) is a very short time to do a counter-insurgency campaign. But the reality is that US and NATO leaders (mostly Bush's fault, in my humble opinion) blew a lot of the time on the clock. Democracies in the modern day only have so much patience for war, even "warlike" ones like the US that got hit hard ten years ago. So, this decision is not surprising. Especially in a time of economic stress.
While this may not be the best decision for Afghanistan, I cannot help but to ask: what other choices were left to Obama? He was constrained by Bush's decisions and then by his own. Should he have not committed to starting a withdrawal two years ago? Probably. But there are many Americans who will be glad that the US is on a similar glidepath in Afghanistan as it is in Iraq.