Just Stick to It

December 10, 2009

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Published in the New York Times, December 10, 2009.


PRESIDENT OBAMA’S critics argue that his plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan starting in July 2011 signals a fatal lack of resolve, inviting the Taliban to wait out a feckless America, or else has no credibility. In fact, the deadline is crucial to the strategy. Yes, there are many reasons to be skeptical of the prospects for the new plan, from the hopeless corruption in Kabul to the difficulties of state-building. But a clearly communicated timeline increases the odds of success.

The July 2011 date should be understood as an inflection point, not as the end of the American military mission. There is no “mission accomplished” here. The American commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue. The pace and location of withdrawals will be dictated by conditions on the ground and, indeed, the date itself was carefully chosen based on the military’s best calculations of improved security and political conditions. It was not drawn from a hat, or determined by the domestic political calendar.

The deadline is essential politically because it will provide the necessary urgency for Afghans to make the institutional reforms that will ensure their own survival. An open-ended commitment creates a terrible moral hazard in which Afghan leaders, assuming American troops will always be there to protect them, may make risky or counterproductive decisions. A limited, conditional commitment creates the leverage needed to generate the institutional transformation necessary to cement any gains made by the military.

Just as in the Iraq debate, hawks who insist on an open-ended commitment to “victory” misunderstand the strategic incentives created by an unconditional military promise. Contrary to prevailing myths of the Iraq surge, Iraqi politicians began to make serious moves toward overcoming their political and sectarian divides only in mid-2008, when it became likely that an Obama electoral victory would lead to an end of the unconditional American commitment.

President Obama’s deadline will not compromise the military mission. The surge of troops is meant to blunt the momentum of the Taliban, establish security and provide space for the spread of governance and legitimacy. Should the Taliban choose to retreat and wait out the American mission, this would be a blessing, not a curse. It would allow America to establish control more easily and help build effective local and national governments.

The greater problem for the Obama administration will be to make the commitment to the drawdown credible. Many expect that the military will come back in a year asking for more troops and time. The blizzard of conflicting messages coming from Washington this week did little to diminish the expectation. This is troubling, because the political logic of the deadline works only if Afghans on both sides believe in it.

Skeptics among the public and in Congress can provide an essential service by carefully monitoring progress and supporting the strategy while making it clear that there will be no tolerance for future escalations or open-ended commitments.

Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, writes the Abu Aardvark blog for Foreign Policy magazine.


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