National Security Network

Public, Experts Look for Significant Troop Reductions

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Report 7 June 2011

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan

Yesterday the White House indicated that the promised July 2011 troop reductions from Afghanistan will be "real" and decided "very soon." A growing array of bipartisan experts, having considered core U.S. interests, conditions on the ground and the sustainability of the effort, has called for beginning significant reductions next month. New poll numbers out today show the public supports that approach. As the U.S. and our allies transition responsibilities to Afghans, it's essential to look beyond military measures to stabilize the country. The focus should be broadened to promote a political settlement that can represent all of Afghan society, improve governance and foster robust economic growth.

Experts say a significant drawdown is in U.S. interests. National security experts support making significant troop reductions from Afghanistan starting next month, and reducing troops to one-third, one-quarter, or even a smaller fraction, of current levels over the next one to three years:

Center for a New American Security: "Today's U.S. force levels of 100,000 would draw down by one-third to one half during this phase [by December 2012]." CNAS's recommendations equate to a reduction between 33,000-50,000 by the end of next year, with forces drawing down to 25,000-35,000 going into 2014. [CNAS, 12/10]

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations: "With Osama bin Laden now swimming with the fishes, the U.S. has but one sensible path: to draw down U.S. forces to 15,000-25,000 by the end of 2013... The common-sense response to this hell hole is for the U.S. and NATO to complete their combat withdrawals by the beginning of 2013-not by the end of 2014 as now planned. That's sufficient time for friendly Afghans to prepare themselves. Besides, upwards of 25,000 NATO forces could remain for a period to help with training, logistics, intelligence and counterterrorist operations." [Leslie Gelb, 5/9/11]

Richard Haass: president of the Council on Foreign Relations: "All of this is an argument for doing considerably less than what we are doing, by transitioning rapidly (by mid- or late 2012) to a relatively small, sustainable, strategically-warranted deployment, one I would estimate to be on a scale of 10,000-25,000 troops." [Richard Haass, 5/3/11]

Center for American Progress: "U.S. forces should begin repositioning within Afghanistan in January 2011 to reflect a renewed emphasis on stability operations in parts of the north and west... By the end of 2012 the U.S. military should have no more than 40,000 troops in Afghanistan. The United States should aim to reduce its total force to no more than 15,000 troops or less by 2014 at the latest as part of its long-term strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government." [CAP, 11/10]

Anthony Cordesman, Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: "Anthony Cordesman, a former defense official and military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a drawdown of some 15,000 soldiers over the next year would balance political and military concerns without endangering the overall counter-insurgency campaign. ‘It shows you're serious about reductions. It's the first step in this transition process to 2014,' he said." [Anthony Cordesman via Reuters, 6/2/11]

Council on Foreign Relations report, co-chaired by Richard Armitage and Sandy Berger: "The president has said that the United States will continue its present military surge until July 2011. If there is confidence that the current strategy is working, then that should enable the United States to steadily draw down its forces starting in July, based on conditions on the ground, as the president has announced. If not, however, a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted. The United States also cannot justify its current level of effort if it does not have the full support of the Afghan government." [CFR, 11/10]

American public supports experts' plans for "substantial" withdrawal. A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll out today finds increased, but still minority, public support for the war - and strong majority support for significant troop reductions. The Post's Scott Wilson writes that "nearly three in four Americans say the administration should remove a ‘substantial number' of troops from Afghanistan this summer, although fewer than half of those polled think the government will do so." The poll also found 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... 43 percent of Americans say the war is worth fighting, compared with 31 percent in March... But a majority of Americans still say the war, which is in its 10th year, is not worth fighting, despite the killing last month of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan." [Washington Post, 5/7/11]

Focus should be on finding a political solution, improving governance and promoting economic growth. As Steve Coll, South Asia expert and president of the New America Foundation writes, "It is past time for the United States to shift some of its capacity for risk-taking in the war off the battlefield and into diplomacy aimed at reinforcing Afghan political unity, neutrality, civil rights, and social cohesion."

Improving governance. Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman of the Center for American Progress write, "For the Afghan government to survive a dramatically reduced U.S. military presence and reduced flows of financial assistance, it will need to address its fatal weaknesses -- political exclusivity, overconcentration of executive power, and dependency on external aid to hold the system together. If reforms do not occur that address these flaws in the system, then the United States will be signing up to support a state that will be simply unsustainable over the mid-to long-term." [Wadhams and Cookman, 6/2/11]

Finding a political solution. Lakhdar Brahimi, former United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, and Thomas R. Pickering, former ambassador and under secretary of state, write, "The stalemate can be resolved only with a negotiated political settlement involving President Hamid Karzai's government and its allies, the Taliban and its supporters in Pakistan, and other regional and international parties. The United States has been holding back from direct negotiations, hoping the ground war will shift decisively in its favor. But we believe the best moment to start the process toward reconciliation is now, while force levels are near their peak. [Brahimi and Pickering, 3/22/11]

Fostering economic growth. The Council on Foreign Relations reports: "Widespread poverty and lack of infrastructure threaten self-sustaining economic development. Without greater private investment and regional economic integration, Afghanistan's vast resources, whether mineral deposits or agricultural products, will remain underutilized, and the nation will depend on international donors to support its government and people." [CFR, 11/10]

[Steve Coll, 2/28/11]

What We're Reading

Iran has sent submarines to the Red Sea, the first such deployment by the country's navy in distant waters.

Ban Ki-moon has formally asked members of the United Nations to support his candidacy for a second five-year term as UN secretary-general.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen suffered injuries far more extensive than previously known in an attack on his presidential palace last week, with burns over 40 percent of his body.

Rare daytime NATO strikes hit Tripoli in rapid succession, raising pressure on Libyan regime.

The United Nations said it is considering creating separate terrorism blacklists for al-Qaida and the Taliban, a political gesture that could spur possible Afghan peace talks.

Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency more than doubled its estimate of the radioactive material ejected into the air in the early days of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Fighting spread to a city in a heavily militarized part of Sudan as the northern Sudanese army appeared to be trying to disarm militias and forces aligned with southern Sudan.

A leaked version of Zimbabwe's voters' roll contains approximately 2.6 million names too many.

EU officials estimate that a new bailout to Greece will cost over 100 billion euros rather than the previously assumed 60 billion. 

Ahead of a July 3 national election, dozens of rural Thai communities are branding themselves a "Red Shirt Village," giving the anti-government movement grass-roots muscle to mobilize behind its parliamentary allies, the opposition Puea Thai Party.

Commentary of the Day

Lawrence Korb writes that with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the United States has the opportunity to adjust its national security policy by recognizing that, while serious, the threat from al Qaeda is not existential and that Americans actually face even more serious threats to our safety and security.

Daniel Levy warns that if Prime Minister Netanyahu cannot change course on his bet that Israel can insulate itself from change all around by building higher barriers, both physical and ideological, between itself and the rest of the region, then he might be making the most consequential gamble yet in Israel's short history.

Michael Weiss contends that the Syrian opposition is the most liberal and Western-friendly of the Arab Spring uprisings.