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Making Withdrawal Work
SCOTT SEWARD SMITH is a former UN official and the author of Afghanistan's Troubled Transition: Politics, Peacekeeping and the 2004 Presidential Election.See more by this author
President Barack Obama's announcement in June of the beginning of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was taken in both Washington and Kabul as a sign of the United States' reduced commitment to Afghanistan. His brief speech -- with its minimized objectives, not a single mention of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and focus on "nation-building at home" -- left the impression that the withdrawal was calculated with only U.S. interests in mind, and that those interests are increasingly incongruent with Afghanistan's.
This need not be the case: in fact, the U.S. withdrawal may be the very best chance for a stable, self-sufficient Afghanistan. The departure of international troops could provide incentives for Kabul to provide better governance while depriving the Taliban of some of its sources of moral and material support. This could leave Afghanistan even more secure than if the troops were to remain indefinitely.
To understand why this is the case, it is important to examine how the Taliban insurgency has proved so viable up to now. In the years after U.S. forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001, many Afghans increasingly lost confidence in the government of Hamid Karzai and began to resent the regime's international backers. By 2006, the Taliban had undeniably reemerged as a military and, in some areas, a political force. After initially denying that the Taliban resurgence was sustainable, Washington and its NATO allies responded in two ways: by deploying more troops (in 2007, there were 25,000 U.S. troops in the country; by the end of 2009, there were 67,000, and by the end of 2010, there were 97,000) and by calling for improved civil-military cooperation to win Afghan "hearts and minds."
By 2010, as even the previously stable parts of the country became the sites of regular Taliban attacks, it was clear that neither strategy had worked. The United States then added two new elements: the reintegration of low-level Taliban fighters, who ostensibly joined the insurgency for economic rather than ideological reasons, and an openness to negotiations with the Taliban leadership to find a "political solution" that would end the conflict.
Yet even taken together these four policies are not so much a strategy as a mishmash of often misjudged reactions to events. It is time to make them more coherent; the beginning of a troop withdrawal might provide exactly that opportunity.