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Will a few more years make any difference?


Secretary Gates is in Afghanistan giving his druthers about how to begin this year's planned troop pullout. Officials at the highest levels in Washington are debating when and how quickly to do the withdrawal. It's all based on that idea that the Afghans will take over their own security sometime in 2014, and the only way Washington can get them to be serious about it is to begin slowly taking away many of the 100,000 Americans who handle a lot of that work now. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Afghanistan can force the bad guys to terms from a position of strength.

But why bother going slow, asks David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy. The Afghan government and its uniformed services can continue improving -- maybe -- but the other part of this gamble is a mistake, he argues. Why drag out the withdrawal?

Writes Rothkopf:

While some elements of the Taliban and other anti-government forces in Afghanistan might be coaxed to the negotiating table as a consequence of further applied pressure from the U.S. military, it is almost certainly the case that these will neither be representative of the whole of anti-United States, anti-Karzai-government opposition nor will they be drawn from the most extremist and potentially disruptive elements from among our current enemies.

Further, even if such a group were to come to the table there is neither any guarantee that talks would be productive nor is there any that winning an extension in power for Karzai or some power-sharing government would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups. Given that the United States and our allies are unwilling to stay indefinitely and that we have set a deadline of 2014 for departure, a deadline so close as to virtually guarantee we can not know the viability of any regime established in the next year or two, we will have little long-term leverage to ensure the outcome Gates believes we should wait longer to attempt to produce.

He continues:
2014 is effectively now. If you are in the Afghan opposition -- a Taliban or a restless warlord or mischievous Pakistani ISI officer with an agenda -- Gates' message sounds a lot different to you than it does to American audiences. To Americans it sounds like "let's get out slowly." But to the committed extremist all they hear is "let's get out." What's a few more months when you have been fighting for a decade...longer still since many of those fighting see this as a continuation of a war with the Russians that began more than three decades ago?

Go slow or go fast, they think, in three winters the invaders will be gone and the rules will change rapidly.

It is unreasonable to think that if ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful that six or nine more months of perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 more troops will make much of a difference. And indeed, in the long run it will not and by leaving the troops there a little longer, by withdrawing a little more slowly, President Obama can say he listened to his generals, gave it every chance, and only then drew down more rapidly.

But lives will be lost in the interim. And every American troop on the ground costs roughly $1 million a year, so even a few thousand troops makes a difference of billions in expense to a strung-out U.S. budget. But more importantly, whatever the expense is, it is extremely unlikely to be effective and staying longer is likely to only have utility as a political exercise.

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