Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Case for a Withdrawal Plan

Since President Obama announced his policy for going forward in Afghanistan, there have been a few questions about the withdrawal schedule. At first the Administration was firm that this was a serious and solid schedule to begin pulling troops out. Then, within a few days, statements from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense have begun to water this down.

Then came Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' surprise trip to Kabul at the beginning of the week. Gates spoke about the planned withdrawal of US troops, as outlined by the Obama Administration. But in contrast to this, President Karzai stated that, only with a "maximum effort", could Afghanistan hope to completely take over its own security in 5 years. And he then stated that it would be at least 15 to 20 years before they would be able to actually bankroll their own military and police force. That's right, 2015 before they can provide their own security. And they will need outside financing for their armed forces and police until at least 2025! I can't help but wonder if Karzai discussed his take on the timeline with the Obama Administration, prior to this.

I fully admit that I am no expert in the state of the Afghan military and police. I am also aware that it takes more than just learning to shoot, as some pundits have ignorantly stated, to make a good military. What is needed is a military and police force that is 'nationalized'. In other words, one that has allegiance to the nation first and foremost rather to a province or tribal system. It also must attain a state of discipline and dedication within the ranks, beyond that usually seen in that part of the world. But 5 years just to take over the basic management of their own security? That's after some 7 years since the Karzai government took power. This seems to me, a very long time. Then add in that they can't even pay for it until 2025 or maybe longer. I don't even want to consider how much this will ultimately cost America and NATO,  in lives and money.

This underscores why we need a solid schedule. It needs to be made clear to Karzai and his government that America and NATO will not just hang around forever. Karzai needs a deadline. Without one, he will have no pressure to move forward quickly. Think about it, right now America and NATO are providing most of the money and the primary security force for Afghanistan. What is Karzai's motivation to step up and take over? I'm sure he'd like to not have us meddling in his politics, but I'm also sure he's happy for the elite military and seemingly endless flow of cash. I know if I was in his place, I'd certainly be in no hurry for that to change.

Setting a timetable isn't a matter of giving up or "surrendering", as the simplistic among us like to repeat ad nauseam.  It's a matter of being fully aware of everyone's motivation in this.  It's simple psychology.  If Karzai has the expectation that the US and NATO  will continue to militarily and financially sponsor his Administration until he is 'ready', then he's got no motivation at all to rush. As long as the benefits of our presence outweigh the complications, it's in his best interest to keep us around. It is only after Obama's plans for the future in Afghanistan that we find that Karzai has an expectation of troop support for the next 5 years and for us to continue to pay for Afghanistan's own military for another 15+ years. Clearly there is a huge disparity between US and Afghan expectations.

We set and do everything we can to stick to a withdrawal plan, so the Afghans know the clock is ticking. We need to keep pressure on Karzai so he will actually want us to step away. We need to make sure there are enough strings attached to the money we are pouring into his administration that he will actually start weighing the pros and cons of our support.  As long as it's in his best interests for us to stay, Karzai will never declare that Afghanistan is ready to stand on its own. Why should he? America and NATO will be footing the bills and doing much of the fighting. And whenever there are civilian casualties or an outcry about methods he can always blame it on us. We need to setup an exit strategy and make sure the Afghans are fully aware that we intend to use it whether he's ready or not.

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