“As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point."
— President Barack Obama, June 22, 2011
Why bring home the surge troops by the summer of 2012? It had been widely expected that President Obama would announce the planned removal of some—perhaps even all—of the surge forces by early 2013. No serious person expected a drawdown of all 33,000 troops—one-third of the total force—within about 15 months.
So why did the president overrule his military commanders and order such a hasty and rapid retreat? Even if all the surge forces were to be withdrawn, the few months between September 2012 and early 2013 make a huge military difference. The commanders in the field were already concerned about the additional risk any substantial drawdown would create for the success of the mission. But they believed they could deal with the risks and continue to make progress—if they had a full fighting season in 2012 with close to the current number of troops. But now they won't have that. Now it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to use the 2012 fighting season both to consolidate the gains in southern Afghanistan and to begin the pivot to the major operations necessary to secure the east, as the campaign plan has envisioned.
So why the choice of the end of summer of 2012? The budget savings are trivial. The increased risk of mission failure in Afghanistan is great. There is even a real chance of a snowballing lack of confidence in the United States over the next weeks and months in Afghanistan, in the region, and even around the world.
So why September 2012? Because, one has to conclude, Election Day is November 6, 2012. The September deadline will allow candidate Obama to say that he has completely withdrawn the surge forces, and that we're on our way out of Afghanistan and coming home. The timetable President Obama has set isn't based on military considerations, diplomatic strategies, or financial calculations. It's based on the election calendar of candidate Obama.
Maybe I'm being unjust. If so, President Obama can prove it. He can modify his statement of last night to say that he is open to changing his withdrawal timetable in light of conditions on the ground or subsequent recommendations of his military commanders. In particular, he can make clear that if his commanders in the theater believe that a change of only a few months could make a big difference, and that he will be open to moving the deadline from September 2012 to early 2013. And he can announce this modification now, if only to remove the obvious suspicion that he is subordinating the national interest in time of war to his personal electoral considerations.
President Obama presumably will not make such an announcement. In that case, the military leaders will have to soldier on, doing their best to mitigate the damage the president has done, and carrying out their responsibilities as best they can, until we have a new president in January 2013. One hopes it will not then be too late for our next president to overcome the damage that will have been done by this president's disgraceful decision.