Concern About Afghanistan Troop Withdrawals

Military leaders and Republican lawmakers are worried that the president is withdrawing forces from Afghanistan too soon.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama announced to bring back the 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by 2012. Some 10,000 soldiers should start coming home this year. “After this initial reduction,” he said Wednesday, “our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support.”

Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource — our people.

According to the president, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” His generals and prominent opposition members aren’t so sure however.

In pulling out tens of thousands of troops, Obama overruled his military leaders who recommended a less hasty withdrawal. Without explicitly criticizing the planned drawdown, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, and General James Mattis, US Central Command chief and overseer of all American military operations in the Middle East, told Congress last week that they would have liked to keep more boots on the ground. Mullen said that the president’s plans were more “more aggressive and incur more risk” than he was originally prepared to accept. Defense secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in an interview with Agence France-Presse that waning support for the grinding counterinsurgency effort at home was an important factor in the president’s decision.

Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who normally caucuses with the Democrats, expressed concern on Fox News that general war weariness might undermine an effective strategy. “I don’t think you ever want to leave a battlefield for reasons of psychology back home if you agree that the cause for which you’re fighting is important to our security and freedom at home,” he said, adding that he would like to see the first troop withdrawals postponed until the end of this year’s fighting season in Afghanistan.

What’s really important to me now is that the commanders on the ground, the military and our troops, be given some leeway by the president to come back to him and say, we really need to slow the pace of this withdrawal down.

Republican legislators were more vocal in their disdain of the announced withdrawal. Arizona Senator John McCain complained that the president had denied his commanders the forces they need to break the Taliban’s momentum, “just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners.”

“We’ve undercut a strategy that was working,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added. He predicted that next summer’s fighting season would be complicated by the withdrawal of more than 30,000 combat forces by then. “The Afghan security forces are better but not yet able to sustain the fight without out help,” he told CNN. “NATO allies are more likely to leave at a faster pace now.”

Days after the president’s speech, Belgium and France indeed announced additional troop withdrawals. Canada, Germany and Italy previously scheduled retreats. The Netherlands and Poland will shift their focus from combat to training local security forces.

Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, who chairs the House intelligence committee, voiced similar criticism on Sunday. He explained on CNN’s State of the Union that the military is “right in the middle of the first fighting season” at surge level. Commanders on the ground, he said, had asked for at least two fighting seasons with the additional capacity. Announcing a drawdown now could do “more harm to our ability to leave Afghanistan a place that can defend itself.”

Rogers was also skeptical of talking with the Taliban, pointing out that “they have never lived up to an agreement.”

The Pakistanis tried it in ’08. The Russians tried it when they were there. George Bush tried it in ’05. It has never worked. And to think this is going to work now to justify a pullout — I am very concerned about the gains we have made in Afghanistan.

“I think we need to finish the job,” South Carolina’s other senator, Jim DeMint said on the same program. “If the president would follow his generals’ advice, as he has been up to this point, and allow the troops to stay and finish the fight over the next couple of years, we could get them out.” He warned however that America could find itself “back in the fray” if it withdraws from Afghanistan too quickly.