Over the past few days, a number of news reports on troop drawdowns in Afghanistan have suggested that core American allies have either decided upon such a move (Germany) or are considering it (United Kingdom, Australia). This news comes on the tail of reports that the Obama administration is considering an accelerated withdrawal of its own, even beyond the planned removal of all U.S. “surge” troops from Afghanistan by October 2012. And while the prospect of the hurried departure of some of our closest allies should perhaps not come as a surprise given the White House’s own decision to withdraw, it does raise serious questions about whether enough troops will remain to consolidate hard-won gains in the south and north of the country, and to improve security in the restive east.
In last week’s Weekly Standard, Gary Schmitt and Jamie Fly observed that the Obama administration’s drawdown of surge forces, leaving only 68,000 American forces in Afghanistan by October of next year, “will be difficult to manage.” This challenge will be only greater if allies decide to follow America’s example. In particular, one of three options under deliberation by 10 Downing Street would remove 4,000 of the 9,000-strong British contingent from Helmand province over the course of 2013. With only 6,000 U.S. Marines expected to remain in Helmand after October of next year, the security situation would be highly tenuous, putting at risk the very gains “the surge” was designed to accomplish. Instead of “clearing, holding, and building,” there is a chance that, with a greatly reduced footprint, we’ll be struggling to hold and back to clearing new pockets of insurgent activity.
Obama’s decision to end the surge of forces in Afghanistan early, in an obvious play to the anti-war base of the Democratic Party (see, e.g., the president’s reelection campaign website, which specifically ignores the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan), is probably no surprise given where his poll numbers are. However, this and rumored decisions about cutting back on the deployment of even more troops in 2013 have had and will have a multiplier effect on allied decisions on whether to sustain forces in theater as well. In short, the race to the exits has begun, with the Taliban and the Pakistan military no doubt thinking “don’t let the door hit you on the behind on the way out!”