President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that 33,000 American combat forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2012. By the end of the election year, nearly all of the “surge” troops the president added to the war effort should have returned home. At least 10,000 will leave this year to meet Obama’s promise to begin a “substantial drawdown” in July.
When the president increased the troop presence in Afghanistan by some 30,000 in December 2009, he promised to start bringing soldiers home by July of this year. The intense counterinsurgency campaign waged under the leadership of Generals Stanley McChrystal until June 2010 and David Petraeus since has seen combat operations in Afghanistan mount in number and intensity. Night raids increased spectacularly during the second half of last year while heavy armor was deployed to break the insurgency.
Despite the surge and successes in the south, Taliban insurgents remain active in the Pashtun dominated Helmand and Kandahar Provinces while support is flowing in from tribal areas in neighboring Pakistan.
In its most recent assessment of the war, the administration admitted that tactical victories achieved in Afghanistan remain “fragile and reversible.” The existence of sanctuaries across the border with Pakistan in particular is hampering progress as they allow the enemy to regroup or simply wait out the NATO war effort.
The counterinsurgency strategy hinges on the ability to transfer security and government responsibilities to a civilian administration that is fraught with nepotism and lacking authority outside the capital of Kabul. The Afghan army that is equipped and trained by Western nations remains largely incapable of operating on its own.
At over $100 billion a year, the war effort is also costly and increasingly unpopular at home. According to a poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, more than half of Americans believe that the war has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from Afghanistan this summer.
The military has cautioned against hasty withdrawals. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in November that this year would be a “difficult” one for the troops. General Petraeus told ABC News two weeks ago that he was “making progress” while the defense secretary, Robert Gates, who is due to retire next week, urged skeptics to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he said, along with many hundreds of lives lost. This Sunday, he was even more outspoken, telling CNN that “failure is a huge challenge for the United States” and could have “costs of its own that will linger with us for a longer time as was the case in Vietnam.”