Getting Out of Afghanistan

Spencer Ackerman has a smart post this morning arguing that speculation about the number of troops Barack Obama will announce are leaving Afghanistan misses the point:

What matters isn’t how many troops Obama withdraws this year, or next. It’s how the drawdown supports Taliban peace talks, the only real ticket out of the war.

It’s as I said a smart item, but I think I’m going to disagree. Ackerman concludes by saying that “if Obama’s Wednesday speech doesn’t explain how the drawdown supports a political strategy for ending the war, it’ll mean one thing: he has no idea how to get out of Afghanistan.” I don’t think so. I think the way to get out of Afghanistan is, more than anything else, to leave. That is, not to set conditions for leaving, but to just leave.

That’s been the case in Iraq. The question has always been, in my mind, whether Obama would suspend the Bush-planned retreat if the various players involved believed that just a bit longer would make a difference. So far, that hasn’t been the case in Iraq (although there are still a few more hurdles to go). Similarly, for Afghanistan, the question has been whether Obama would stick to his initial surge/end surge/withdraw outline, regardless of whether various goals were met.

Of course, making leaving the goal means that any other goal — democracy, for example, or even something more basic such as a stable government — is considered less important. Whether that’s the correct policy or not is a fair question. But as far as I can see, the best measure for whether the US is leaving isn’t a military or a political solution: the best measure is whether troops are leaving. And so I do think that the focus on numbers (and any hints of a future timetable) is, in fact, the correct one.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.