Republican senator Lindsey Graham voiced concern about the future of American military involvement in Afghanistan a day after his country’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, had told NATO allies in Brussels that the United States could suspend combat operations as early as 2013, a year before the alliance is scheduled to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans.
Graham, a South Carolina native and Air Force veteran, is a noted national-security hawk who previously questioned the administration’s decision to withdraw 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan before the end of this year. “This is all domestic politics,” he said on Fox News’ On The Record on Thursday. “There is no military commander suggesting that we pull out in September of this year the surge forces.”
In bringing home tens of thousand of troops this year, President Barack Obama overruled his military advisors who recommended a slower withdrawal. Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last June that the president’s plans were more “more aggressive and incur more risk” than he was originally prepared to accept. Before he resigned in July, defense secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that waning popular support for the grinding military effort was a factor in the government’s decision to draw down forces at a faster pace.
“If we take combat operations off the table in 2013, that’s the second fighting season we’ve lost,” Graham lamented. He worried that General John Allen, the commander of international forces operating in Afghanistan, wouldn’t have the resources necessary to expand his counterinsurgency effort into the eastern tribal regions where the Taliban maintain an active presence.
Defense secretary Panetta insisted that Western troops “will have to be fully combat ready” and will fight “as necessary” even as native forces assume the security lead. However, few NATO countries are still willing to see the war through.
Just two weeks ago, France suspended its combat operations after four servicemen were shot and killed by a local trainee. President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a war weary electorate as well, could pull out French forces by 2013, a year ahead of the 2014 deadline that was set by NATO two years ago.
These moves communicate a weakness to the insurgents, said Graham. “If you’re trying to win a war and negotiate with the enemy, you want to do so from strength.” Republicans are critical of setting deadlines for troops withdrawals altogether, fearing that the Taliban will bid for time and return to power once Western armies have left the country.
Asked what advice he would give the president, Graham said, “What I think he should do is enter into an agreement with the Afghan government at their request to have military bases in the country, three or four, past 2014, with airpower and Special Forces units that can defeat the Taliban in perpetuity. Then you negotiate with them. Not now.”
There may not be the political will to commit to Afghan security in the long term. Vice President Joe Biden told NBC News in December 2010 that the United States were “gonna be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014.” Other administration officials have been less adamant but far from clear on what, if any, military engagement the president envisions in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline.