The beginning of the end in Afghanistan

Two years ago, after a lengthy deliberation process, President Obama sided with U.S. military leaders, embraced a counterinsurgency strategy, and set a “surge” in motion. The president, by all accounts, was far from certain about the efficacy of the policy, but he was willing to try the change in strategy.

This year, Obama didn’t side with military leaders. Gen. David Petraeus wanted to see the withdrawal of no more than 10,000 American troops, 5,000 this year and the rest in 2012. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also warned against a significant withdrawal, and wanted to give the existing strategy more time.

That’s not going to happen.

“Thanks to our extraordinary men and women in uniform, our civilian personnel, and our many coalition partners, we are meeting our goals. As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

He didn’t say we’ll base withdrawal decisions on “conditions on the ground.” Rather, he said we’re leaving, albeit slowly.

It was also interesting to hear the president talk up a political solution to the war, most notably his remarks about negotiations with the Taliban, a major topic of recent conversation.

“We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban. Our position on these talks is clear: they must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution. But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.

“The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies. We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”

The problem with all of this, of course, is whether the Afghan government will be even remotely capable of meeting its responsibilities. Obama didn’t, and probably couldn’t, offer any kind of assurances about whether the corrupt officials in Afghanistan will be prepared to serve as an effective “partner,” but the message to Karzai seemed pretty straightforward: we’re leaving, so you better figure it out.

There will no doubt considerable discussion today about the speed and scope of the president’s plan. Democrats want more troops out sooner, the military wants fewer troops out slower, and Republicans, who apparently no longer give much thought to national security policy, aren’t quite sure what to think, but they’re sure Obama is wrong about something.

Ultimately, though, last night’s speech was about marking the beginning of the end of the war. Given the alternative, it comes as something of a relief.