Foreign Policy Blogs

On Obama's Troop Drawdown: An Analysis

The New York Times reported, less than five hours before a scheduled prime time nationally televised speech, that President Obama has indeed decided to drawdown the 30,000 surge troops out of Afghanistan.  10,000 are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year; the other 20,000 by summer of 2012-just before the November election.

As Helene Cooper and Mark Landler, writing for the Times, report this plan is far bolder than anything the military had supported.  Yet this was the political winner within the administration, the one that split the difference between having left Afghanistan yesterday with the whole all 100,000 ground troops and the far more moderate and militarily sensible move to give the troops fighting the Taliban a fighting chance.

President Obama’s decision on the particulars of the drawdown have been beset by the argument that the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for nearly ten years and that as such, somehow, it’s high time to leave Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. moved away from Afghanistan as soon as President Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. Since then less than 40,000 U.S. soldiers had been defending Afghanistan, until President Obama pushed up troop deployment to about 70,000, nearly double the previous troop presence.  It is breath-taking then, that President Obama decided to lighten the troop load in Afghanistan. No doubt he thinks that the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban can be fought with less troop intensive methods, for instance, counter-terrorist methods like night raids and predator drone strikes.

In fact the decision to withdraw signals a political decision that 70,000 troops would allow a sufficiently strong troop presence in Afghanistan until the U.S. finally disengages in 2014. This move is sure to put decisive pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept that he and others in power in Afghanistan need to govern in a way that will complement a changing U.S. strategy. Indeed, this will force Mr. Karzai to accept the brunt of resurgent U.S counter-terrorism activity, whatever political benefits demagoguery might bring.

What are the benefits, then, of this move to withdraw troops? It is certainly a political decision, more than a military one. The benefits are thus likely to be political as well.  It offers a chance for President Obama to credibly show that he is a peacetime president as much as he is a war-hawk.  That, after Iraq he will drawn down action in Afghanistan and will (one hopes soon) disengage in Libya- a policy that seems to offer some substance to his Nobel Peace prize.

This move also shores up Vice President Biden’s standing in the American political arena, at the expense of lions like out-going Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. This move also leaves some breathing room for the president to negotiate with his Republican opposition on the U.S. budget and its deficits, and the broader, and deeper, problem of U.S. sovereign debt. Further, it undercuts GOP presidential nomination front-runner Mitt Romney’s demands that the U.S. withdraw swiftly out of Afghanistan.

The costs of the move? The president’s decision to drawdown more significantly and more swiftly will impact the way the war in Afghanistan is fought. This move effectively decapitates counterinsurgency as a fact of the matter on the ground. Indeed, Cooper and Landler report that out of the top 30 most wanted al Qaeda leaders, U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have killed 2o, all over the course of the last year and a half – during Obama’s watch.  Needless to say, counter-terrorism has won over counter-insurgency, clearly evident after the May 2nd raid in Abottabad that netted and killed Osama bin Laden.

Still, the real loser of this move might well be General David Petraeus, the man who literally wrote the counterinsurgency manual, and then personally oversaw its implementation in Afghanistan from strategic and field leadership positions. Now, as the incoming Director of the CIA, his job will be to draw down counterinsurgency- his pet project- and redouble the agency’s efforts toward counter-terrorism.  There is little doubt that he will be successful in this effort- he has seemed to have failed at little else. Nevertheless, President Obama’s decision just made Patraeus’ upcoming job at the CIA a bit more pressing, a bit more strategically cutting than the stings and arrows with which his predecessor had to deal.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

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