A decision on the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan still hasn’t been made. President Obama has instead kicked that can farther down the road, which could make it a pivotal issue in his quest for reelection in 2012.
When the president announced a troop surge a year ago, he also said the Afghanistan situation would be thoroughly reassessed in the months ahead. Expectations then were that the review would lead to a more specific timetable to quit the war. But in releasing a summary of the classified report Thursday, Obama would not go beyond what he had already said, that some U.S. troops would begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011.
That could be a handful of soldiers, or it could be a lot, depending, as always, on those proverbial conditions on the ground. Right now, that ground looks awfully soggy. Some might even say our troops are stuck in the mud. The White House report noted that progress had been made to reduce the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan and target al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, but it concluded that the situation remained tenuous. “The gains we have made are fragile and reversible,” said Obama.
In fact, an International Committee of the Red Cross report released Wednesday painted an even bleaker picture, pointing to a “proliferation” of armed groups that have avoided the NATO forces trying to root them out. “Out in the rural villages in conflict-afflicted areas, there might be an armed group visiting a family in the evening, asking to be sheltered and asking to receive food,” said Reto Stocker, head of the IROC’s Afghan mission. “The very next morning, another group might come challenging the family, asking why the enemy has been sheltered.”
The White House report, prepared by its national-security team, placed emphasis on the need for Pakistan to stop providing safe havens for al-Qaeda and to end its cozy relationship with the Taliban, which has allowed Afghan insurgents to cross the border at will to escape NATO pursuers.
The summary stopped short of being so critical of Pakistan that it might endanger the increased cooperation that nation has provided of late. It also refrained from heaping criticism on the corruption-riddled government of Afghan President Hamad Karzai. But two other recent assessments of the Afghanistan war made by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were much more to the point. The “national intelligence estimates” were very critical of Pakistan’s porous border, and expressed doubt that the war in Afghanistan could be won unless that changes.
Military officials retorted that the spy-guys’ report is outdated, and does not take into account how much ground the Taliban has given up recently. But other war observers say there has been a natural ebb and flow of the nine-year conflict in which the insurgents retreat in the fall and winter only to come out of hiding in the spring.
Spring, that’s when the president will have to make up his mind about the size of a troop withdrawal in July. NATO has announced a goal of handing off most military operations to Afghan troops by 2014. But exactly how that will occur remains a mystery.