Costs key to Afghan withdrawal strategy

President ObamaWell, I laid it all out about war costs last Saturday, and today’s NY Times has war costs in the top spot on the front page. The cost factor seems to have played a major role in President Obama’s decision to withdraw more troops, more quickly, from Afghanistan than had been expected.

The decision to be announced tonight will reportedly call for a reduction of the 100,000-ish U.S. troop level in Afghanistan by 10,000 this year and another 20,000 by the end of next summer. If you haven’t studied calculus recently, that’s an accelerating pace of withdrawal, and means that the 2014 target for being out, or pretty much out, is likely to stick.

The death of Bin Laden will be a central talking point in explaining this withdrawal, but money is the big subtext. A recent report quotes this source:

“From a fiscal standpoint, we’re spending too much money on Iraq and Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said. “There’s a belief from a fiscal standpoint that this is cannibalizing too much of our spending.”

There are two big dangers in making Afghanistan policy, and perhaps not that much room to maneuver between them. If you stay too long you exhaust political support at home, try the patience of our allies, raise suspicions in Pakistan, and contribute to our money woes. If you leave too quickly, you waste the gains won in blood and sweat since the 2009 “surge,” and invite trouble back to a country that for better or worse has become a central focal point of the international community’s efforts to combat terrorism. Twice before, we abandoned Afghanistan to its fate — after the Soviet Union was defeated and again after we got distracted by Iraq — and both times it came back to bite us.

What, then, is the perfect compromise to navigate this strait without crashing? Probably something like 10,000 troops this year and 20,000 more by the end of next summer. Making the best of a bad situation all around. There will be a lot of mixed opinion on this, though. See Phil Arena’s take, Juan Cole’s view, Daniel Serwer’s analysis, and a good interview with Ambassador James Dobbins at CNN.

 

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