- Is a timetable an operational or strategic tool? Of course, a timetable would affect both the strategic landscape and what happens operationally in Afghanistan, but the question really is: Who benefits from a timetable? One of the biggest arguments against a timetable is that it will leave the host nation in the lurch if they're not ready or the security situation isn't ready by the time the intervening forces is scheduled to leave. Afghanistan is an interesting case study for this dichotomy as there are some very compelling arguments that a long-term, troop-heavy presence provides the United States virtually no strategic benefit. Al Qaeda could be contained much like what we're doing in Pakistan (and HOA for that matter). In the case of Afghanistan, a timetable would likely screw the Government of Afghanistan, but that's not a strategic problem, really (I'm going to guess a number of you are going to disagree with that and I'd like to hear those arguments). Keeping an unpopular government in power with the intent of improving the lives of Afghans seems to be a pretty low priority on the list of strategic interests - especially with such a low likelihood of success. The maintenance of tens of thousands of troops and tens of billions of dollars in a country with little to no global or regional strategic value is a waste of significant strategic resources. In my opinion, in Afghanistan, a timetable allows the United States to withdrawal in an orderly fashion without further waste of strategic assets.
- There could be military benefit (and subsequent political benefit) to the establishment of a withdrawal timeline. I'm drawing this statement from my experience in Iraq and the effect of the SOFA on Sadrist militants, but there are many counter examples. The idea here is that organizations at war with the government and the intervening force may react positively to a timetable in two ways: decrease military activities to prepare for when the intervening force is gone OR transition to a more political footing in a possible peaceful nation. My understanding is that the Sadrists essentially stopped military action (and for other reasons, too) in both of these interests. What was interesting though, is by the time the U.S. was no longer responsible for providing security in Baghdad, things had pacified fairly well to the point where it was difficult to get people to fight against a better security force. In essence, the lull in fighting provided that "breathing room" for the government to take control and it didn't matter why the Sadrists took their breather. But the fact remains that the SOFA played a large roll in their decision to do so. I doubt the Taliban would attempt to peacefully politicize their organizations, but they may take a breather if they know when we're leaving in order to get ready for the war that follows. Will the ANA be ready to take them on by then? Unlikely, but possible. I don't see how everyone doesn't benefit if everyone just took a knee for a bit.
- We don't lose face. I can't stand this Vietnam vintage argument. You know who didn't lose face with their allies and who didn't embolden their enemies from leaving a strategically insignificant war by a timetable? The United States after doing so from Vietnam. When you have the largest economy and military (by capability, not manpower) in the world, you don't lose face by scheduling to get out of conflicts that don't existentially affect you. Iraq isn't perfect and no one is bitching that we're unreliable allies because of that. Our allies all want out of Afghanistan, too.
Friday, May 27, 2011
In a surprising result, the House narrowly failed to pass a bill that would have required some immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to set a timetable for the remainder. With 26 Republicans joining the Democrats, it seems that the death of bin Laden and disillusionment with what we're doing in Afghanistan generally are driving a shift in political support of U.S. involvement in the war. This has me thinking about withdrawal timelines this morning. The discussion of setting a timetable for withdrawal from conflict is a sensitive one, but I often feel that the two sides often are talking past each other. So here are a couple of thoughts I have on the matter and I how I frame the subject.
I'm still thinking through this and this isn't the answer for why timetables are good - at least in the case of Afghanistan. You may disagree with my underlying assumptions. But the first point is the most important, I think. Whether you're for or against a timetable for withdrawal you have to consider at what level you think a timetable affects. If your interests are merely to help Afghanistan succeed, I don't find your argument all that compelling. If you can make the argument that Afghanistan is a strategically essential place for the United States, then I'd like to hear that case. But more generally beyond Afghanistan, this is an interesting topic that I'm not sure has been fully developed. So if any of you want to throw me some money to research it, I'm very open to it. Until then, I firmly believe that withdrawal timetables are perfectly acceptable ways to get out of conflicts you don't want to be in anymore.