In his brief speech to the nation Wednesday night, President Barack Obama — like the American public — appeared resigned to a far-from-satisfying end to the war in Afghanistan. While announcing a draw-down of troops and a timetable for a complete U.S. withdrawal, the president appeared less than convinced that the strategy he outlined was a pleasant one.
His resignation to the departure of U.S. troops without a clear victory reflects the reality in Afghanistan, as well as the growing American discontent with the war. A poll, released this week by the Pew Research Center, found that the percentage of Americans who support an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan had reached 56 percent, its highest point since the military operation began.
One reason is that the need to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan — which in October will enter its 11th year, the longest American military intervention in history — has become as much about domestic economics as nation building and U.S. security.
“America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” the president declared from the East Room of the White House.
“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people,” he said.
This is a stunning turnaround from the long-pervasive idea that it is America’s duty to spread democracy and opportunity around the world. Now such intervention must come with a cost-benefit analysis. What will funding a long-term military presence do to the national debt? Are building and staffing bases in distant countries as effective as investing in on-the-ground intelligence and special operations? This is, after all, the type of work that lead to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout and his subsequent killing.
In Afghanistan specifically, the president had little choice but to announce, as he put it, “the beginning … of our effort to wind down this war.” That beginning includes withdrawing 33,000 troops — the increase included in last year’s “surge” — by next summer. By 2014, the remaining 68,000 U.S. soldiers are slated to leave and Afghans will be in charge of their own security.
This is a faster timetable than recommended by U.S. military leaders, but slower than the public wants.
While such a draw-down and timetable is possible, the president said, because al-Qaida has been weakened and routed from Afghanistan, the Taliban no longer rules the country and Osama bin Laden is dead. The first two could be temporary. The Taliban is already resurgent in parts of the country and al-Qaida, though dispersed, is still plotting and carrying out attacks, although on a smaller scale.
The president has accepted the reality that most Americans are done with Afghanistan. What he didn’t answer Wednesday night was whether his scheduled troop withdrawal would go on no matter what. If thousands of Afghanis are being killed, will U.S. forces still leave? If the Taliban regains enough power to reimpose its harsh laws, which are especially punitive to women, will the U.S. still walk away?
These are difficult questions with no easy answers. To date, the answers have been that the situation in Afghanistan is too precarious, so the U.S. must remain. After a decade — and with growing pressure to cut expenses at home — this answer isn’t good enough any more.