President Obama’s announcement of an accelerated US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is strategically brilliant. It has divided the enemy and significantly increased the chances of victory. Unfortunately, the enemy in this case are the Republicans and it is victory in the US presidential election, rather than Afghanistan, that the president has in mind.
The political brilliance of his announcement is illustrated by the way in which it has split the Republican candidates for 2012. Tim Pawlenty has condemned Obama for withdrawing too fast. Jon Huntsman has condemned him for pulling out too slowly. Mitt Romney, characteristically, is trying to have it both ways. Meanwhile the Republican old guard, led by John McCain, is railing against the new isolationism within the party.
All this leaves Obama positioned exactly where he wants to be – as the voice of centrist moderation. In 2012 he will campaign as the man who brought two difficult wars to an acceptable close, and who is now ready to concentrate on rebuilding America.
But will Afghanistan come to an “acceptable close”? Obama was right to make the point that the original target of the war – al-Qaeda – are now in significant disarray, at least in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The death of Osama bin Laden makes that case easier to make.
The president was slightly less clear on the question of the Taliban. And there must indeed be a risk that the Taliban take over even more of Afghanistan – and possibly, one day, even Kabul itself – as the Americans pull back. I suspect the key thing from Obama’s point of view is to avoid significant Taliban advances in the summer of 2012 – as American troops pull back, but before the presidential vote has taken place.