The Looming Taliban Two-Step

  • Share
  • Read Later

A U.S. soldier protects a canal in Zabul, Afghanistan / U.S. Air Force / Brian Ferguson

The White House has announced that President Obama on June 22 is going to reveal the way forward in Afghanistan — which, boiled down, means how many of the 100,000 U.S. troops now there will be coming home in short order. Then, some 24 hours later, the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing for General David Petraeus to run the Central Intelligence Agency.

What does this tell us, if anything? Pentagon tea-leaf readers conclude that whatever Obama announces will mesh with Petraeus’ wishes, or at least win his grudging endorsement. After all, Petraeus commands the troops in Afghanistan and is slated to run the CIA starting this fall. No way, they assert, will Obama announce a policy that Petraeus could criticize the next day before the TV cameras.

Both outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who has called for a “modest” reduction in troops in Afghanistan this year — and Petraeus have made it clear they want to preserve U.S. combat power on the ground through the “fighting season” in Afghanistan, now under way, as well as through 2012’s fighting season, which runs from spring through fall.

(PHOTOS: A Blackhawk’s View of Afghanistan)

Pentagon officials are seeking a minimal cut of 3,000 to 5,000 support troops by the end of this year, although many believe the President will double that, to 10,000. Then, they suggest, U.S. troop strength would plateau at 90,000 through next year’s fighting season, when it would start coming down anew as Obama’s re-election campaign enters its final weeks. By the end of 2012, the 30,000 “surge” troops he ordered to Afghanistan in late 2009 should all be home, some Pentagon officials believe. Battleland’s Thomas P.M. Barnett also suggests there’s evidence that the looming troop pullout could help stabilize … Pakistan.

It was at a speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009, that Obama pledged that progress in the war would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” The truth, such as it is in Washington, is that no one knows what number and glide slope Obama is going to select. “The President has not yet even made a decision to announce,” White House press secretary (and former TIME boss) Jay Carney said on Monday. “The President is still in the process of finalizing his decision on the pace and scope of the drawdown that will begin in July of 2011.”

But Gates, in a pair of weekend TV interviews, seemed to suggest that his initial call for a “modest” cut has softened. “We have made a lot of progress over the last 15 months,” he told CNN. “We have basically thrown the Taliban out of their home turf of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.” On Fox he declared that “we have had a lot of success over the last 15 months in Afghanistan.” Obama’s decision, he added, is “going to be a decision that is based on the gains that we have made on the ground — success on the ground.” That’s a bright green light for deeper cuts than some in uniform would like to see.

PHOTOS: The Taliban’s War in Pakistan

LIST: Gears of War: An Incredible Tour of America’s Military Arsenal