President Barack Obama put forward a nuanced approach Wednesday night for winding down American involvement in Afghanistan. The president's timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops will help stabilize ongoing security gains while gradually reducing America's commitment of blood, sweat and money. Any course in Afghanistan has its risks, and only time will tell whether the president got it right in charting a middle approach between a quick withdrawal and a longer-term commitment. But Obama has carved out a plan that balances domestic political concerns with America's broader national security interests.
The president announced he would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year, and another 20,000 by next summer. That would remove the "surge" of American forces that Obama ordered into Afghanistan in 2009 under a campaign to wipe out militant strongholds. Obama said Wednesday the allies had inflicted serious enough losses against the Taliban insurgency and al-Qaida's terrorist network to begin a phased withdrawal and to hand over security to the Afghan central government. The withdrawal of the approximately 70,000 U.S. troops remaining would be completed by 2014, the president said, with the Afghan people then taking responsibility for their own security.
The pace of the withdrawal is faster than what Obama's top military commanders wanted to see, and slower than what antiwar lawmakers and fiscal hawks had hoped for. The president said the timetable would give the United States and its allies the means to work with Afghanistan on an orderly transition. Obama made it clear the United States was not seeking to make Afghanistan "a perfect place." On that score, the strategy should temper concerns that the administration is opening itself to an unrealistic or open-ended military commitment. Obama, if anything, narrowed the U.S. goal. From here, the president said, America would look to deny safe haven from which al-Qaida could launch attacks against American targets. And the United States would work with the Afghan government to reserve its ability to launch strikes against terrorists.
Obama's plan fulfills the twofold pledge he made in calling for the surge in a speech at West Point in 2009. American forces will have more time to bolster gains against the Taliban before troop strength returns to its presurge levels. And Obama honored his promise to begin troop withdrawals this summer. The nation clearly is exhausted after 10 years of war. The costs — 1,522 American dead, another 12,137 wounded and a monthly outlay of almost $10 billion — cannot be sustained. Obama's plan at least starts the clock as he promised. And it sets a date for these vast financial resources to be redirected toward home.
Still, this will be Obama's war to carry into his re-election campaign. And there is much to the president's strategy that is outside his control. The administration needs to marry the drawdown with a new surge of civilian expertise to help Afghanistan lay a much stronger foundation for transparent and capable governing, civil rights and economic opportunity. If Obama can cement the progress of the last 10 years, then the next few years could build a legacy worthy of the sacrifice.