Will Afghan Drawdown Spur U.S. Policy Rethink?

U.S. Troop Levels In Afghanistan

President Obama has announced plans to begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan over the next year.

Troop levels in Afghanistan, projected through 2012

Notes

Data unavailable for some months in 2001 and 2002.

President Obama's message to the nation last week was unequivocal: It was the beginning of the end for large-scale American military operations in Afghanistan.

Obama announced that 10,000 U.S. forces would be out by the end of this year. The drawdown would then steadily continue until 2014, when the U.S. would hand over security to Afghan forces. In other words, the U.S. is winding down the war in Afghanistan, much as it has the war in Iraq.

"These long wars will come to a responsible end. As they do, we must learn their lessons," Obama said. "Already, this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world."

The president said the U.S. has spent $1 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that at least 6,000 U.S. service personnel have died in both conflicts. There has been no clear outcome, no decisive victory, in either conflict.

'An Outstanding Opportunity'

William Martel, an associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University, says the president's announcement affords the opportunity for some collective soul searching.

"I think the winding down of the war in Afghanistan for us provides an outstanding opportunity for us to reconsider what we're doing and where we're engaged and to what extent we're engaged in international politics," Martel said.

Martel says he's not one to argue for radically increasing or decreasing that involvement, but he says he thinks there is a potential shift toward a "rebalancing of American involvement globally."

Martel says you can already see this in Libya, where the U.S. has largely handed over military operations to NATO forces. In his speech, Obama pointed out the U.S. does not have one soldier on the ground in that country.

Limits To U.S. Power

Jeffrey Laurenti, director of foreign policy programs at the Century Foundation, says the U.S. may have to abandon the notion that military interventions are the first answer in efforts to protect global security.

Laurenti says the U.S. may also have to reconsider nation building. He says Obama all but acknowledged that, despite the money and effort, the U.S. can't make Afghanistan a perfect place and that it's now too late to try.

"This reflects, I think, the sense that there are limits on what the U.S. or any outside power is able to do in certain places," Laurenti says. "And that's the more modest and realistic view that is going to have to characterize probably most American relations and trouble situations in the future."

Laurenti says Obama's decision on a troop drawdown also sends a clear signal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his aides that they need to step up to the plate — build up their own security forces and clean up the government. He says regional powers such as Pakistan and India will also be recalculating their roles after the U.S. draws down.

Effect Of Decision On Afghanistan

Laurenti says the announcement will have an impact on the Taliban. He says it will signal to militants that the president has put out an open hand for a genuine negotiated settlement, but Obama has also indicated that the U.S. is prepared to keep using drone attacks. Laurenti says the Taliban will have to calculate whether a compromise is better for them than gambling on being able to push over the Karzai government when most of the foreigners leave.

Obama signaled that the U.S. will keep some troops on after the 2014 deadline to carry out counterterrorism missions. But their number will be a fraction of the 100,000 soldiers there now.

Obama's decision to pull out the bulk of those U.S. troops within the next 3 1/2 years will have an effect on those serving in Afghanistan, says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University.

Bacevich served in the Vietnam War during the period of that drawdown. He says it had a real, and not very helpful, effect on the morale of troops who were committed to the war. Bacevich says he believes the same thing could happen in Afghanistan.

"You know the famous John Kerry statement, 'Who wants to be the last person to die for a misbegotten cause?'" he says. "I don't know who wants to be the last person to die for Afghanistan."

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