THE AMERICAN ANNOUNCEMENT ON AFGHANISTAN: A POLICY OF SCUTTLE?
"BRUSSELS — In a major milestone toward ending a decade of war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday that American forces would step back from a combat role there as early as mid-2013, more than a year before all American troops are scheduled to come home.
Mr. Panetta cast the decision as an orderly step in a withdrawal process long planned by the United States and its allies, but his comments were the first time that the United States had put a date on stepping back from its central role in the war. The defense secretary’s words reflected the Obama administration’s eagerness to bring to a close the second of two grinding ground wars it inherited from the Bush administration.
Promising the end of the American combat mission in Afghanistan next year would also give Mr. Obama a certain applause line in his re-election stump speech this year.
Mr. Panetta said no decisions had been made about the number of American troops to be withdrawn in 2013, and he made clear that substantial fighting lies ahead. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be combat-ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves,” he told reporters on his plane on his way to a NATO meeting in Brussels, where Afghanistan is to be a central focus.
The United States has about 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, but 22,000 of them are due home by this fall. There has been no schedule set for the pace of the withdrawal of the 68,000 American troops who will remain, only that all are to be out by the end of 2014.
Mr. Panetta offered no details of what stepping back from combat would mean, saying only that the troops would move into an “advise and assist” role to Afghanistan’s security forces. Such definitions are typically murky, particularly in a country like Afghanistan, where American forces are spread widely among small bases across the desert, farmland and mountains, and where the native security forces have a mixed record of success at best.
The defense secretary offered the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq as a model. American troops there eventually pulled back to large bases and left the bulk of the fighting to the Iraqis.
At the same time, Mr. Panetta said the NATO discussions would also focus on a potential downsizing of Afghan security forces from 350,000 troops, largely because of the expense of maintaining such a large army. The United States and other NATO countries support those forces at a cost of around $6 billion a year, but financial crises in Europe are causing countries to balk at the bill".
Elizabeth Bumiller, "U.S. to end combat role in Afghanistan as Early as Next year, Panetta says." The New York Times. 1 February 2012, in www.nytimes.com.
"After the May 14 speech outlining our compromise terms for negotiation, we turned to the unilateral withdrawal of American troops. We had inherited, in one of the less felicitous phrases of foreign policy in this century, a general commitment to 'de-Americanize' the war....In our innocence we thought that withdrawals of American troops might help us win public support so that the troops which remained and our enhanced staying power might give Hanoi an incentive to negotiate seriously. At the same time, if we strengthened the South Vietnamese sufficiently, our withdrawals might gradually even end our involvement without agreement with Hanoi....It was clear that the military approached the subject with a heavy heart. Deep down they knew that it was a reversal of what they had fought for. However presented, it would make victory impossible and even an honorable outcome problematical. The process of withdrawal was likely to become irreversible. Henceforth, we would be in a race between the decline in our combat capability and the improvement of South Vietnamese forces --- a race whose outcome was at best uncertain."
Henry A. Kissinger. The White House Year. (1979). pp. 271-272.
The statement by the American Secretary of Defence, Mr. Panetta, that the U.S.A. will end or at the very least downgrade considerably its combat role in Afghanistan as of the middle of next year, leaves at least this commentator in a quandary. The reason for this is rather simple: on the one hand, as the one of the leading American military analysts Mr. Anthony Cordesman, noted yesterday, the American Administration has as per its Afghanistan policy:
"There is no overall plan for transition and withdrawal that links US and other allied forces, changes in the aid efforts of the US and other countries, and the build-up of Afghan security forces and governance in given areas. The military may have a campaign plan, but the US and its allies do not have an integrated civil-military war plan. The development of Afghan national security forces (ANSF) is in a state of total confusion. It is being rushed forward while spending is being drastically cut, long before it is clear how long it will take to create effective force elements and how serious the limits will be to the quality of much of the military and police forces. This is particularly critical because major elements of the ANSF cannot possibly be ready to stand on their own by the end of 2014, and the Afghan government officially stated at the Bonn Conference that it will need major outside aid and support through at least 2020. It is all too clear that the ANSF will not be ready to take on a major combat role in 2013 without significant ISAF support, and that the current ISAF campaign plan to secure key areas in the east and consolidate gains in the south cannot be implemented if major US and ISAF force cuts take place....There is no consensus within the US government over the level of troops that should be kept, how to phase down US and allied forces through 2014, how to phase down US aid efforts, what level of defense and foreign aid spending will be needed through 2014 and beyond. Concepts are not plans, and intentions are not money" 1.
In short, to a degree perhaps unprecedented in American military history, the American forces, if the statement made by the Defence Secretary has any meaning, are preparing to do a 'super scuttle'. Making Nixon & Kissinger's policy of 'Vietnamization' in 1969-1972 look in retrospect as brilliantly thought out and statesman-like in comparison. With the only historical examples that come to mind are the British withdrawals from Palestine and the Indian Sub-continent circa 1947-1948. In both cases of course, said withdrawal resulting in considerable bloodbaths in both locations. However, looking at the matter from a strictly machtpolitik point of view, id est., from the point of view of Western and American interests there is an argument to be made that the current Western troop presence in Afghanistan is unnecessary and at the very least has not shown much evidence that it is having a positive result. As the ever wise, Leslie Gelb, one of the 'authors' of the Pentagon Papers has argued this week:
"With this strategy, the administration accomplishes three goals: (1) U.S. troops are removed from combat earlier, reducing lives lost and cost; (2) U.S. troops return home earlier; and (3) both security and political risks are made manageable....But for the United States, the war is coming to an end. Its critical goals have been achieved. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda there is virtually dead. There are no vital interests to justify further great sacrifices. And now it’s time to act upon this reality and bring the heroes home" 2.
Per se, Afghanistan by itself has absolutely no strategic importance or value. Its only importance is that in the recent past it has been a base for extra-territorial terrorist attacks on third-countries. Au fond the real and indeed perhaps only issue raised by the American statement is: will the end of American and Western combat forces from the fighting and the possibly reduction in the size of the Afghan Army mean what exactly vis-`a-vis the Taliban forces in the field? Only this week, there was a leak of a American military document which clearly seems to show that sans the American-lead forces, the Taliban feel quite capable to ousting the Karzai regime from power and installing themselves instead 3. If this is in fact the case, what will be the extra-Afghanistan repercussions of the ouster of the American-Western backed Karzai government? Will there be none because the Taliban will concentrate upon remaining in power and unlike the situation in the 1990's, not care to meddle in the affairs of other countries? Or conversely will a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan be once more a magnet for terrorist elements world-wide? And if so, how will this state of affairs differ in anyway from say what is now going on in parts of say Yemen and Somalia? Per contra, it could be argued that lying as it does at the crossroads of the Middle East, the Asia Sub-continent and Central Asia, that Afghanistan is the ultimate 'road to somewhere' and thus cannot be simply abandoned without there being some negative strategic repercussions `a la what occurred the last time that the Americans left circa 1989-1992 4.
1. Anthony Cordesman, "The Real issues in Afghanistan: looking beyond undefined policy statements and slogans." Center of Strategic and International Studies. 2 February 2012, in www.csis.org.
2. Leslie Gelb, "Obama's Faster, Smarter, Afghan Exit." The Daily Beast. 1 February 2012.
3. "Taliban will take over from U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan-leaked U.S. report." Strategic Culture Foundation: online journal. 3 February 2012, ,in www.strategic-culture.org.
4. For the Lord Avon's amusing expression: the 'road to somewhere', see: Sir Charles Arthur Evelyn Shuckburgh, Descent to Suez: Foreign Office Diaries, 1951-1956. 1987, p.