So the size of the U.S. troop pullout President Obama is slated to announce later this month now varies by an order of magnitude: those who want to preserve the gains earned over the past year are suggesting about 3,000 — of the 100,000 U.S. troops now there — would be about the right number to order home starting in July. But — given American war weariness, the $100 billion annual cost of the war, and the recent killing of Osama bin Laden — others in the Administration are advocating that up to 30,000 should head back to the U.S. That would return the number there to about 70,000, the total U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan before Obama ordered 30,000 reinforcements early last year.
While this decision is the President’s alone to make, he is getting plenty of advice on what to do. Unfortunately, it conflicts. And, unspoken by Administration officials but always present — kind of like gravity — is the possibility it could affect his re-election chances next year.
On one side, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates — now in Afghanistan — publicly tilted to the 3,000 number on Saturday. “It seems to me that between the successes that we’ve already enjoyed and the increased capacity of the Afghan forces, we are a in a position – based on conditions on the ground…to consider some modest draw-downs beginning in July,” he said in a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This counter-insurgency strategy — which emphasizes winning over the people rather than killing the bad guys — has had a pretty good year in Afghanistan. But it is boot-heavy.
Leon Panetta, Gates’ successor — who will be running the Pentagon in less than a month — is now in charge of the CIA, and favors a stepped-up counter-terror campaign that would permit a bigger reduction. The increased use of special-operations forces and drone strikes that he and other counter-terror advocates support would allow more infantrymen and Marines to head for the exits. Vice President Joe Biden also supports this approach.
Of course, Panetta’s successor come fall is going to be Army General Dave Petraeus, perhaps the Pentagon’s leading counter-insurgency champion (he wrote the book, literally). So it’s going to be interesting to watch how Petraeus, who will retire from the Army before taking the CIA post, threads the COIN-counter-terror needle.
But all this is mere tea leaf reading. Long-time Pentagon watchers found the most interesting thing over the weekend not the back-and-forth debate over U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, but the missile strikes next door in Pakistan. Despite Islamabad’s repeated protests, those strikes continue. On Monday, three drone attacks in South Waziristan killed at least 18 people. In the not-too-distant future, they suggest, the Afghan war could look increasingly like that.