2013: New Date, New Afghanistan Strategy?
By Matt Southworth on 02/05/2012 @ 04:20 PM
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's surprise announcement that "hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 [the U.S. will] be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise-and-assist role" in Afghanistan was both welcome and unexpected. Previously, 2014 was the year which the U.S. had committed to transition all authority to the Afghan government. The Obama administration has since backpedaled on the announcement, unfortunately muddling whether this move is a rhetorical or strategic shift.
The Obama administration should stick by the 2013 proclamation and take the long-view on U.S.-Afghanistan policy. The announcement, if a shift in strategy, is a step in the right direction—and an opportunity to not only end the U.S. war, but also the broader conflict.
Ending combat operations by mid-2013 and redeploying U.S. military personal by the end of 2014 is a clear, unambiguous message to Afghans and regional stakeholders: the U.S. is not staying forever. Some say this kind of plan will embolden the insurgency, but given their heavy reliance on a U.S. military presence for recruiting, the move more likely weakens the core resistance. More importantly, a clear declaration such as this one forces stakeholders such as Pakistan to the negotiating table in a way that combat cannot and has not in the past decade.
This plan for ending the U.S. war isn’t perfect or as fast as many—including me—might like it to be. But it is realistic. Negotiating a political settlement based on ending the broader conflict—both within Afghanistan and in the region—will take considerable time, likely stretching far beyond 2014. But the U.S. military is not needed for the negotiating phase of ending the conflict and, in fact, often hinders the process.
The U.S. plans to spend over $80 billion dollars on the war in Afghanistan in fiscal year 2013—down about $24 billion from fiscal year 2012, but still a significant amount of money. Given recent reports of gloomy days ahead for Afghanistan, with a nearly $600 billion U.S. price tag, over 1,800 U.S. dead and tens of thousands wounded and without clear progress, it is long past time to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most important lesson to draw is that this shift—whether rhetorical or actual—is proof that your advocacy is working. After years of work, it is clear the Obama administration has the backing of most of Congress and the public to change U.S. policy in Afghanistan. However, if we want to hold the Pentagon to the 2013 date, it will take continuous engagement by all. That means participating in events like FCNL’s Spring Lobby Weekend is of paramount importance in the coming years. The only way to keep the government accountable is to engage elected and appointed officials. Let’s not let this opportunity slip away.