Unpacking the Un-Surge in Afghanistan

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President Obama, at the White House, announces initial phase of Afghanistan withdrawal on June 22, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Robert Haddick, managing editor of Small Wars Journal, discussed the Obama administration's shift on Afghanistan policy.

Less is more

On Wednesday night, President Obama announced that 33,000 American troops would come home from Afghanistan by next summer, effectively recalling the surge that he prescribed in 2009. Obama set 2014 as the deadline for near-total withdrawal, at which point operations would pivot from combat to providing support for Afghan security forces.

Robert Haddick said that the draw down is all about leverage. There's evidence that a large U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan emphasizes conflict over development—both of Afghani infrastructure and armed forces—and actually hinders anti-terror operations in other increasingly important nations.

The large US military presence in Afghanistan has to be supplied. Military forces are voracious consumers of all kinds of expendables—food, fuel, parts and so forth to keep them effective—and most of these supplies have to come through Pakistan, which gives the Pakistani government leverage over US military operations in the region. The larger the US force, the more leverage Pakistan has.

Who will pay for Afghanistan's security?

The U.S. has all kinds of money tied up in Afghanistan, from the real cost of troops and equipment to the enlistment of local private contractors and training programs for domestic security forces. As much as withdrawal is about the military, it's also about cash. Haddick said there was serious concern among military planners and policymakers that whatever national security beast we help build for Afghanistan will be too big for us to feed.

The real exit strategy is to establish competent and effective Afghan security forces, and there's a great deal of debate about how large they should be...There's the aspect of what's going to be the continuing cost of a large Afghan army and national police, and is the U.S. going to have to pay for that in perpetuity?

America, the weary

Two callers expressed grave reservations about our ultimate success in Afghanistan, with or without troops. One stressed that we were fighting an impossible war against terror—an idea, a concept, but not an enemy that can be vanquished. Another wondered why we ever believed we could win the hearts and minds of a country so divided along primordial loyalties and among warlords.

Haddick conceded that these callers reflect the growing consensus in America: that these wars cost too much for too little. He predicted we wouldn't have the stomach for similar affairs in the future.

It's shown the limits of patience for the doctrine and approach used thus far. This is going to be a challenge for US military planners to devise a new doctrine for stabilization missions that will not require the heavy manpower-intensive US military footprint. The U.S. will probably get drawn into another campaign like this, but there'll be political calls for taking a different approach than what was taken in past decade.