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In Afghanistan, Failure is a Choice

Will President Obama choose it?

11:49 PM, Jun 6, 2011 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Tuesday's Wall Street Journal features a very important piece on Afghanistan by Kim and Fred Kagan. The Kagans show how irresponsible it would be for the president to announce the withdrawal of a substantial number of troops in July, as some political advisers in the White House are advocating. They also point out how irresponsible it would be to establish a "bookend" of announcing the planned withdrawal of all the surge troops in 2012. The surge over the last year and a half has created the conditions for success in Afghanistan. The Kagans explain that if we see the fight through in the south and the east for the next two years, a real drawdown will then be possible in 2013, consistent with the NATO goal of transferring security control to the Afghans in 2014.

Petraeus Obama

It would be terrible, indeed shocking, if President Obama undercut all the efforts and sacrifices of the last year, efforts and sacrifices carried out pursuant to his orders, by choosing now to begin to cut and run — especially since the decision to cut and run would be driven entirely by domestic political considerations.

I might add, for what it's worth, that I don't think the White House operatives even get the political considerations right: surely the president will be better off next year to be succeeding in Afghanistan with 95,000 troops, even if the war remains somewhat difficult and unpopular, than to be failing with 65,000 troops, having invited failure by ignoring the recommendations of his generals in the summer of 2011?

In any case, the president's decision in the next few weeks could mean the difference between a good chance of success and the likelihood of defeat — a dishonorable and unnecessary defeat — in Afghanistan.

Here are highlights of the Kagans' Journal piece. Read the whole thing.

"The fight is approaching its peak, progress remains fragile and under assault, and we need every soldier we have — U.S., coalition and Afghan — to maintain momentum. The risks of a small withdrawal (say, 5,000 troops) are probably manageable. But any such withdrawal would be driven by politics rather than strategy.

Progress in the fight is undeniable. Coalition forces have driven the Taliban from their major safe havens in southern Afghanistan and are continuing to press into lesser enemy strongholds. The Taliban have launched operations to retake the ground they have lost, but so far to no avail....

There is every reason to believe that coalition forces and their increasingly effective Afghan partners can hold the gains in the south through this fighting season (that is, until November). This would allow them to create meaningful security zones around all of the major population centers in the south for the first time since 2001, but only if they have the resources and the time to do it....

A successful fighting season this year would permit decisive operations in eastern Afghanistan in 2012....This timeline would also likely permit the beginning of substantial reductions in forces in 2013, assuming that progress continues in the south as we defeat enemy counterattacks in the east....

If Mr. Obama announces the withdrawal of all surge forces from Afghanistan in 2012, the war will likely be lost. Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other global terrorist groups will almost certainly re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan."

UPDATE: Today's Washington Post reports that "The number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting has increased for the first time since President Obama announced at the end of 2009 that he would boost troop levels, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The finding may give Obama slightly more political breathing room as he decides how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan in July, the deadline he set 18 months ago to begin bringing home the additional U.S. forces."

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