President Obama has announced his plan to start the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan: 5,000 troops will leave this summer, another 5,000 before the year's end, and 20,000 by the summer of 2012. This will, in effect, return the numbers to the pre-surge levels when Obama took office.
While it is possible to debate the merits of this position endlessly, and come to no firm conclusion (history alone will tell), there are two points of particular note that are worth drawing out.
The first is that President Obama went against his military advisers in proposing such a swift pull-out of a significant number of troops. General Petreaus, who leads the operations in Afghanistan (but who will shortly return to Washington as the nominee for head of the Central Intelligence Agency), wanted a smaller and slower withdrawal. So too did Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who steps down at the end of the month), although despite his known leanings he did publically express his support for this position.
So, why did President Obama, who has never served in the military, go against his experts' advice? The answer is politics. For the first time, a majority (56%) of Americans believe that troops should be pulled out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, according to a Pew poll. Approximately two thirds of Democrats support this, 57% of Independents, and even 43% of Republicans (up from 31% a year ago). This trend has not been unnoticed by the Republican nominees for president, a number of whom in a debate last week suggested that the US should draw down its troops; and this, despite traditional Republican support of the use of American hard power.
The election season is on in the United States and while foreign policy is rarely, if ever, an election issue, the economy is. While America is struggling to bring down its deficit and debt, as President Obama said in his speech: 'America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.' As polls suggest, if President Obama wants to win the votes of his party and, more importantly for re-election, independents, he needs to focus his attention and fiscal resources at home.
The second point of note is that this decision appears to have been made unilaterally. This was not a debate embarked on with other nations with troops in Afghanistan. It did not appear to even involve the Afghan Government. And, while it is likely that all these governments were informed of the US decision before Obama's speech, it is fairly clear that they did not have a say in it.
Perhaps this fact should not be surprising; judgements regarding putting citizens in harms way are sovereign issues. And yet, until the US and its allies learn to engage more strategically together, including in tough times like this, Secretary Gates' June 10 statement of 'the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance', will likely come true.