A think tank with close ties to the White House is recommending a deeper and faster reduction in US troops in Afghanistan than the Obama administration plans.
The Center for American Progress [CAP], which opposed the Iraq War and supported the Afghanistan-Pakistan War, is now calling for diplomacy to take priority over military operations, and a gradual drawdown of US troops to 40,000 in 2012 and a residual force of 15-30,000 by 2015.
CAP is headed by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and head of the Obama administration’s transition team. The lead author on the CAP report is Caroline Wadhams, former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Russ Feingold, the leading Senate critic of the war who was defeated in November’s election.
Obama has angered peace advocates by unveiling plans to continue US combat at least through 2014, when responsibility is to be handed over to the Afghan army. The 2014 date may be revised, since the Obama plan depends on favorable “conditions” five years from now.
Obama’s next step is his December Review, an internal process which a senior White House official has said will be akin only to “moving the rabbit ears around a little bit to get better reception.” [Washington Post, Sept. 17] The new Obama approach is regarded as “effectively a victory for the military” in the tug of war over deadlines. [New York Times, Nov. 10]
But the pressure is likely to build for a more rapid withdrawal schedule beginning this July.
The CAP proposal may represent a pushback with its blunt theme that “military operations drive our strategy while the political and diplomatic framework essential for long-term stability in Afghanistan remains undeveloped.”
The CAP report criticizes the current military strategy of targeting and killing hundreds of midlevel Taliban commanders. The insurgency remains resilient, the report finds, and notes, “these strikes run the risk of dividing the insurgency to a point where the group’s external leadership would be incapable of enforcing any potential settlement agreement.”
The CAP report recommends using US troop levels as leverage for reforms of the Karzai government: “If the Karzai government shows no signs of progress, a withdrawal schedule should be accelerated.”
The CAP proposal is the second defection from the Obama policy by a Democratic national security network in recent months. Previously, the New America Foundation’s Afghanistan Study Group proposed a similar drawdown and shift to diplomacy and development. The AFG is directed by Matthew Hoh, a former Marine and State Department official who resigned his US position over Afghanistan two years ago. Its ranks are largely academic, but also include former CIA official Paul Pillar and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former top adviser to Gen. Colin Powell at the State Department.
A comparison of the two proposals is as follows:
CENTER FOR AMERICAN SECURITY [CAP]
- 2010-Dec. 2012: decrease of 60,000 US troops;
- Pause withdrawals during 2014 Afghan presidential election;
- Residual force, 2014-15: 10-15,000 US troops.
AFGHANISTAN STUDY GROUP [ASG]
- 2010-October 2011: decrease of 32,000 US troops [pre-surge level];
- Oct. 2011-July 2012: decrease of another 38,000 US troops;
- Residual force by July 2012: 30,000 US troops
Neither proposal supports a complete withdrawal of American troops or closure of US bases. The CAP report says US troops could be based in Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar or “in the region.” Their duties would include “intelligence collection, security force training, and targeted strikes against terrorist groups including Al Qaeda that threaten the US homeland and our allies.”
ASG report says the US residual forces should “help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engaged in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed.”
Both reports propose broadening diplomatic efforts beyond the United Nations to possible mediators like Turkey or the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
There is little reference in the CAP report to Pakistan where the secret war is widening and drone strikes have quadrupled. Nor is there reference to Yemen, which the CIA recently said poses "an even more dangerous immediate threat to the United States than the Qaeda headquarters in Pakistan." [New York Times, Oct. 18]
Both reports seem designed to lessen the intensity around Afghanistan in the approach to the next budgetary and electoral cycle in the US. So far 1,402 Americans have died in Afghanistan, 772 during the Obama era. At the current mortality rate, 1,000 American soldiers will have been killed sometime in the year ahead. The taxpayer cost of Afghanistan is $8 billion per month, or $116 billon per year – according to CAP, “nearly equivalent to total spending on the nonmilitary defense budget and the budget for the entire Department of Homeland Security combined.”