In domestic political terms, Barack Obama’s announcement on Afghanistan was shrewdly judged. His broadcast told the country what it wanted to hear. The president was crisp and firm. Withdrawing the surge troops by September 2012, he said, was not just expedient but right: he was keeping the promise he made at the end of 2009. But the policy is less impressive than the politics. The removal of all 33,000 surge troops by next September – nicely timed for November’s election – is too fast.
A safe exit from Afghanistan requires three main things: local forces capable of containing the Taliban and other jihadist groups, a Taliban of sufficiently reduced capacity to be containable, and a plan for Afghan governance.
On the first, the president argued that the Afghans were up to the job even as he upbraided the Karzai government for failing to do enough. On the second, reducing the Taliban to the point where they might talk peace on acceptable terms will take, according to the military, two more fighting seasons. But next summer US forces will be in the midst of a 23,000 force reduction, with Nato allies also drawing down. On the third, the development of sufficiently decentralised Afghan government has barely even begun.
After 10 years of war, impatience is understandable. An exhausted and fiscally stressed country is asking what can be gained by staying longer. The Democrats want to withdraw faster than the president proposed, complaining that nearly 70,000 US troops remain after 2012. It is telling that Republicans, despite their instinct to support the military and fight on to a clearer success, are split: many back prompt disengagement from this and other US commitments abroad.
But remember that the surge strategy is not 10 years old. It is barely one year old – and progress has been made, as the president emphasised. To put that at risk, political pressures notwithstanding, is unfortunate.
Aside from the timing of withdrawal, the president’s analysis was mostly right. An open-ended commitment in Afghanistan on anything like the present scale is insupportable. More generally, US foreign and security policy does need to strike a better pragmatic balance of ends and means, and the US will be right to demand more of its partners. But the US must be careful not to turn towards isolationism. Hints of that in the president’s address – it is time for “nation-building at home”, he said – were unsettling.