If all U.S. combat troops are going to leave Afghanistan by January 1, 2015, it makes sense that they back away from Afghanistan’s front lines before New Year’s Eve, 2014. Think of it as the dimmer on your dining room light – slowly turn it down instead of plunging from full light to darkness.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s declaration Wednesday that the U.S. will leave its combat role in Afghanistan sometime next year in favor of a more hands-off “advise-and-assist” mission shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It happened in Iraq, and it’s part of an orderly withdrawal.
It’s reassuring to the local military force to have the U.S. military on call in the final year or so of their presence. That way, the locals can conduct military operations knowing that if they screw up, help – in the form of the U.S. military – is a radio call away. The U.S. has some 89,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that total will drop to 68,000 by election day in November.
Panetta’s timing might have been better: even though it’s old new, reports that the Afghan Taliban are simply waiting for the U.S. and its allies to withdraw before they can resume their offensive was a predictable kick in the teeth. But a politician has to balance that against the cheers that will sound if President Obama can declare, as he seeks re-election, that the two wars he inherited are in their final chapter, at least as far as Americans are concerned.
Panetta expressed optimism to reporters aboard his plane as he headed to a NATO session in Brussels:
We have weakened the Taliban. We’ve made good progress in going after them. The level of violence is down. It continues to be down. And you know, admittedly, these are the winter months, but at the same time…security is clearly improving in all of those areas. A lot of it is due to the Afghan armed forces, the army. They’re doing much better operationally, and we continue to try to train and improve them in that capability.
The bottom line, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is clear: nearly 7,000 American lives is a sufficient investment for this nation to make. Obama’s allies will cheer Panetta’s announcement, while his foes will accuse him of cutting and running. “Secretary Panetta’s statement today sends the wrong message at the wrong time to both our friends and our enemies in the Afghan conflict,” Senator Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said.
Both sides have merit. But, in history’s rearview mirror, there are tens of thousands of American families who wish that LBJ had the guts to do, in 1966, what Obama is doing in 2012.