Palpable worries: Obama second term could end Afghan war

It appears US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan is going to be accelerated faster than some would have thought as the money spent on an unwinnable war could be better used to save American jobs and boost US economy.

On several occasions, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he is confident the 100,000 troops still in Afghanistan under the NATO umbrella can hand over responsibility of Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.

While the United States has withdrawn more than 33,000 troops that were part of a “surge” in the war, about 68,000 American troops remain as part of the NATO force.

In June 2011, President Obama announced his plan to begin the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. But the president did not say that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

What he did say was 10,000 troops would be removed by the end of the summer 2011, with 23,000 additional troops leaving at the end of 2012. But his patience is now running out.

Yet some experts argue that the US President did not say that the mission in Afghanistan will end by 2014, only that it will cease to be a combat mission and become a support mission. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has since confirmed that President Obama never said US troops would be completely withdrawn by the end of 2014.

Indeed, some experts said, nowhere in the President’s June 2011 speech did he mention a deadline for the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and no date for full withdrawal has been specified since then.

In fact, the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was struck between the United States and Afghanistan in June 2012, provides for a US military presence after 2014, although the magnitude of the presence was not specified.

This summer, Obama, presiding over a 50-nation war coalition summit in his hometown, summed up the mood by saying the Afghanistan that will be left behind will be stable enough for them to depart-essentially good enough after a decade of war but still loaded with troubles.

Ending mission

Obama had clearly said that the war that began in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks will finish at the end of 2014. “No mission is going to run forever,” he said.

Afghan forces for the first time will take over the lead of the combat mission by the middle of 2013, a milestone moment in a long, costly transition of control. Even in a backup role, US forces and all the rest will face surprise attacks and bombings until the war is ended.

Wary of creating a vacuum in a volatile region, the nations also promised a lasting partnership with Afghanistan, meaning many years of contributing tax dollars, personnel and political capital after the end of their soldiers’ combat.

The United States has already cut its own deal with Afghanistan along those lines, including a provision that allows US military trainers and special forces to remain in Afghanistan after the war closes.

In November 2012, Afghanistan and the United States had finished negotiations for the Bilateral Security Agreement, which will govern the US military presence in Afghanistan post-2014, including how many troops are left in Afghanistan, and for how long.

In August 2011, it was reported that the Pentagon was trying to strike a deal with the Afghan government to leave 25,000 US troops in Afghanistan until at least 2024.

The 25,000 troop number is still being floated. Marc Grossman, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said that the 25,000 troops figure is ‘speculative’ and that a number has yet to be decided upon. Grossman did not, however, deny that the Pentagon is pushing for the 25,000 troops.

Troops withdrawal

Keep in mind that there were only 34,000 troops there when Obama took office. If 25,000 troops are kept in Afghanistan after 2014, that means that the net withdrawal would be a mere 9,000 troops.

Furthermore, before 2008, troop levels were at roughly 25,000 or less. So leaving 25,000 troops in Afghanistan would be to merely return to 2007 troop levels.

If the Pentagon gets its way, the US will be at war in Afghanistan for at least 13 additional years-that is three more years than one has been at war to this point. Grossman said “meaning that we would not even be at the half-way mark today, let alone nearing the end!”

In fact, reports are indicating that the US presence in Afghanistan will consist of a ‘slimmed-down counterinsurgency strategy’ that would help protect the Afghan population - as well as hunt down Taliban insurgents and Al-Qaeda members.

There may also be forces dedicated to holding territory won by the US in recent years. In any case, it seems quite clear that the continued US presence in Afghanistan will look nothing like the US presence in, say, Germany.

Per a previous agreement between the US and Iraqi governments, all US troops were supposed to leave Iraq at the end of 2011. That did not stop the Obama administration from trying to pressure the Iraqi government to extend the deadline, allowing the US to leave up to 10,000 troops indefinitely.

Fortunately, this plan has been abandoned, and all but about 150 US troops attached to the US Embassy left on time. But a similar fight over keeping to a deadline for withdrawal may erupt in the future over Afghanistan - whenever a deadline is, in fact, established.

The drawdown plan said to be favored by Vice President Joe Biden would drawdown troops rapidly, to perhaps 20,000, by the end of 2013.

A more gradual drawdown plan calls for removing 10,000 troops by the end of December 2012, leaving 58,000 troops. An additional 10,000 to 20,000 would be removed by June 2013, leaving between 48,000 and 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, still more than were in the country when President Obama took office.

Military commanders are said to favor delaying further cuts until the end of 2013, including Lt Gen Curtis Scaparrotti, who was the second-in-command of US forces in Afghanistan until June 2012 and is now the Director of the Joint Staff.

Meanwhile, Taliban spokesmen have made it quite clear that peace requires a willingness by the US to leave but the US military has done just the opposite through its negotiations with the Afghan government to keep tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Tensions with Pakistan undermined some of the choreographed unity. Pakistan has not yet agreed to end the closure of key transit routes into Afghanistan-retaliation for American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers months ago- and the issue hung over the summit.

One thing is visible that US wants to quit Afghanistan early but strategic compulsions will force to maintain a credible level of force while gradually withdrawing.

Since 2010, they have been planning to finish the war at the end of 2014, even as moves by nations such as France to pull combat troops out early have tested the strength of the coalition.

The shift to have Afghan forces take the lead of the combat mission next year has also been expected. Leaders presented it as a significant turning point in the war.

It will be the moment when throughout Afghanistan people can look out and see their own troops and police stepping up to the challenge, said the NATO chief, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

What the world is poised to leave behind is an Afghanistan still riddled with poverty, corruption and political instability.

Yet, out of money and patience, the US-led partnership said it is confident Afghanistan will be stable and prepared enough to at least be able to protect itself-and, in turn, prevent its territory from becoming a launching pad for international terrorism.