Just in case you missed it, there was good news and bad news in President Obama’s State of the Union speech when it came to the war in Afghanistan:
The good news is that he reaffirmed his commitment to begin the withdrawal of US troops in July.
The bad news is that he made claims about the war and the fight against al Qaeda that were both misleading and inaccurate – claims that could undermine any opportunity for withdrawing significant numbers of US troops from Afghanistan in July.
We don’t have to wait to July to start worrying.
Since President Obama first announced his surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, and committed that we will "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," the administration has been relentless in its insistence that this withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will be strictly "conditions based".
OK. What are these conditions? If the president’s claims in his State of the Union constitute even a hint at what the administration has in mind by conditions, then US forces should either start to be removed immediately or they are staying put for a very long time.
First the president claimed that the US has "taken the fight to al Qaeda". This might be so, but not in Afghanistan. Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, stated in October 2009 that "the al Qaeda presence [in Afghanistan] is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country." Last June CIA Director Leon Panetta reduced that estimate further, saying "the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we're looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less." And in 2009 Gen. David Petraeus agreed with the assessment offered by CNN’s John King that there are "no al Qaeda at all in Afghanistan."
If there are no al Qaeda in Afghanistan than we have "taken the fight" to the wrong place. It is time to get out so that national security resources can be focused where they are needed. If the president insists that Afghanistan remains a threat, even when there is no evidence of al Qaeda, then our forces could end up in Afghanistan for a very long time.
Second, the president claimed, "fewer Afghans are under control of the insurgency." This claim defies the record. According to the Pentagon’s most recent biannual report to Congress in November 2010 "38 percent of the population live in areas rated as having ‘emerging’ or ‘full authority’ Afghan governance. This reflects no substantial change since March 2010."[i] Shadow governments run by insurgent forces continue to operate in many parts of the south and east, "extracting taxes and carrying out ‘official’ functions like trials and determining land and marriage disputes."[ii]
According to Pentagon polling, 80.6 percent of Afghans believe that corruption affects their daily lives and "remains a key reason for Afghans supporting the insurgency." It should come as no surprise, then, that the Pentagon reports: "the insurgency continues to adapt and retain a robust means of sustaining its operations, through internal and external funding sources and the exploitation of the Afghan Government’s inability to provide tangible benefits to the populace."
No number of US troops in Afghanistan can change the endemic corruption there, to say nothing of the safe haven afforded insurgents across the border in Pakistan.
The result? The number of insurgent fighters in Afghanistan has risen exponentially with the presence of US forces from 7,000 in 2006[iii] to an estimated 40,000 by October of last year[iv]. Violence has dramatically increased in Afghanistan over the last year [v] and American and allied casualties are higher than ever.[vi]
If President Obama is serious about his commitment to start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan in July – and insistent upon making the withdrawal "conditions based" - then he needs to spell out the conditions that will determine the size and speed of that withdrawal. I recommend that they include the condition that the war not bankrupt the country. To date, every penny for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have added to the federal debt. Nearly one quarter of the federal deficits racked up since 2003 are the result of borrowing for the wars. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen noted this past August, "The most significant threat to our national security is our national debt."
The conditions for withdrawal might also include whether, since the massive US military buildup, Afghanistan has become more or less violent (it’s more), the Afghanistan government more or less corrupt (more) and the Taliban more or less powerful, be it measured in numbers, influence or lethality (again, more). Or how about the condition that what we do in Afghanistan should make America safer and more secure? It doesn’t.
At the very least, the President needs to stop delivering speeches that include misleading and unfounded claims and make a meaningful withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan less likely in July 2011 or beyond.