Troop exit plan means hard choices for US commanders in Afghanistan
Obama's decision that all 30,000 'surge' forces must leave Afghanistan by end of next summer is not the troop exit plan US military leaders were hoping to hear. What choices confront them?
President Obama's decision that all 30,000 "surge" forces must be out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer is not what US military leaders were hoping to hear Wednesday night – and it portends some difficult choices ahead for on-the-ground commanders.Skip to next paragraph
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Those will fall mainly to incoming US commander in Afghanistan, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, who is slated to replace Gen. David Petraeus in September. Moreover, by the end of 2014, the US mission in Afghanistan will have transitioned from a combat role to a support role, Mr. Obama told the nation in his speech, which marked a pivot point in the 10-year US campaign in Afghanistan. He did not, however, specify how many US forces would remain in Afghanistan by then.
Obama “is betting that a smaller American force, combined with our NATO and Afghan allies, will be able to continue the counterinsurgency campaign until, by the end of 2014, only a residual presence of American advisers and special forces are required to secure American interests in the region,” says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. “He is probably right, but John Allen will have some difficult choices to make about battlefield geometry,” military parlance for how and where he arrays his remaining forces.
Pentagon officials have warned that drawing down US troops before Afghan forces are ready to take over the fight against radical Islamist insurgents could threaten the “fragile and reversible gains” that the US military says it has made against the Taliban, particularly in southern Afghanistan.
But the president's timetable offers some flexibility for US commanders. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had lobbied for a more modest drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops by year’s end, made that point in a statement supporting Obama’s plan.
“Over the past 18 months our troops have made tremendous progress degrading the capability of the Taliban while enhancing the Afghan security forces. It is critical that we continue to aggressively prosecute that strategy,” he said. “I support the President’s decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion.”