National Security Network

The Consensus for Substantial Reductions in Afghanistan

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Report 15 June 2011

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Strategy War in Afghanistan

President Obama is currently conducting a review of America's strategy for the war in Afghanistan. He will announce the size of the July 2011 drawdown in the coming days. National security experts, public opinion leaders as well as a growing number in Congress and the public all support a substantial troop drawdown starting next month. Their reasons for supporting a substantial reduction vary, as do specific recommendations on the number of troops that should be withdrawn. But a consensus has formed around the conclusion that a substantial drawdown would help align American interests with our commitment in Afghanistan and push Afghans to take responsibility for their own safety and governance. In that context, the National Security Network has put together a special report outlining that consensus. Below are excerpted quotes demonstrating that consensus. The full report can be found here.

National Security Experts

John Deutch, former Director of Central Intelligence

 "Our strategy [in Afghanistan] is obviously not on a successful path... The real question at bottom is: Are the political, military and financial resources that this country has properly allocated with such a large amount of effort in Afghanistan?... My answer to that question is that the investment that we have in people, in dollars, in diplomatic effort, in reputation is being weakened by our presence in Afghanistan relative to other allocations we could have. So my view is it's time to get out - in fact, long, long past time to get out." [John Deutch, 5/24/11]

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, try cutting a deal with the Taliban, and refocus American power in the region on containment, deterrence and diplomacy. There might be better words to say this, but Mission Accomplished-as much as necessary and possible. The killing of bin Laden highlights that his al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan is in threads. By all intelligence and military accounts, they are down to fewer than 200 faithful. Extending a major land war indefinitely to kill every last one of them would be hideously wasteful. Thus the original mission is effectively accomplished... 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 Falkenrath, Principal at the Chertoff Group and former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor under President George W. Bush

"Essentially we have just one vital national interest [in Afghanistan], and really that's to avoid another base for terrorist to launch [attacks] against us... we are a democracy, the president is elected, and he cannot sustain an international war indefinitely in the absence of political support. It's just a fact. And the political support is, if not gone, very close to being gone and falling... For me the juxtaposition of those two points says not only will the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan fall and be drawn down on the schedule the president proposes or on an accelerated schedule -- I don't know -- but that it should. The fact that we have rather modest vital interests there and that popular support really is gone - and it's not gone because the president failed to sell it but rather because people realize what it is and aren't buying it." [Richard Falkenrath, 5/24/11]

Letter from 11 former military officials

"We agree that the United States has successfully deployed its military and intelligence assets to accomplish our stated mission of destroying al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan and degrading the leadership by killing or capturing dozens of significant al Qaeda leaders, culminating in the operation that eliminated Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, we do not believe it is a top national security interest of our country to utilize our military forces to undertake nation-building activities in an internal Afghan conflict that stretches back to the 1970s. We congratulate you on the successes achieved by our forces, and urge you to begin a substantial and responsible redeployment of our forces this summer." [Letter to the President, 6/2/11]

Think Tank Reports

Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report, co-chaired by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former National Security Advisor Samuel Berger

"The president has said that the United States will continue its present military surge until July 2011. If progress is being made, the United States should be able to draw down its forces starting in July 2011, based on conditions on the ground. However, if U.S. efforts are not working, a more significant drawdown to a narrower mission that emphasizes counterterror objectives with fewer U.S. forces will be warranted." [CFR, 11/10]

Center for American Progress report authored by Caroline Wadhams, Colin Cookman, Brian Katulis and Lawrence Korb

"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]

Opinion Leaders

Fareed Zakaria, TIME Magazine Columnist and Host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS"

"Counter-terrorism is much easier to achieve than taking Afghanistan - which is the third poorest country in the world by some measures - and turning it into a functioning, liberal democracy with a stable political order, limited corruption and a central government that commands the loyalty and legitimacy of its people. That is a very, very difficult task. I would hope that President Obama takes from recent events a real recognition that his emphasis on counter-terrorism was exactly the right one. When the deadline to begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan arrives in July, I hope there will be substantial troop withdrawals." [Fareed Zakaria, 5/10/11]

David Ignatius, Washington Post Columnist

"Today, the United States is allocating about $110 billion annually for the Afghan war, about $3.2 billion for military and economic aid to Pakistan, and about $150 million in special assistance to help Egypt's democratic revolution. In terms of U.S. national interests, those spending levels don't make sense. The pyramid is upside down. President Obama should seize this budget-crisis moment to change national security spending for the next fiscal year. The rationale for the shower of cash in Afghanistan is to prevent future attacks by al-Qaeda. But, frankly, a successful, democratic Egypt will be a more potent counter to the spread of Islamic terrorism than a stable Afghanistan. And a prosperous, democratic Pakistan would be the best safeguard of all. This is not an argument for pulling the plug in Afghanistan, especially at the start of this year's ‘fighting season.' The United States should stick to its broad timetable for transferring responsibility to the Afghans in 2014. But we should spend less, going forward, as we move along the exit ramp. This will mean a smaller military footprint, more use of paramilitary forces and more emphasis on diplomacy." [David Ignatius, 4/19/11]


Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

 "While the US has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment, in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable." Kerry has also said, following the death of Osama bin Laden, "We're at a critical moment where we may be able to transition at a greater speed." [John Kerry via the FT, 6/14/11; via the NY Times, 5/15/11]

Bipartisan letter from 27 Senators

"Instead of continuing to be embroiled in ancient local and regional conflicts in Afghanistan, we must accelerate the transfer of responsibility for Afghanistan's development to the Afghan people and their government. We should maintain our capacity to eliminate any new terrorist threats, continue to train the Afghan National Security Forces, and maintain our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. However, these objectives do not require the presence of over 100,000 American troops engaged in intensive combat operations." [Senators Letter via FT, 6/14/11]

Public Opinion

Experts' analyses are bolstered by public support.

CBS News poll

As attention turns to drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 64% of Americans think the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be decreased -- something the Obama administration has scheduled to begin next month. The percentage of Americans that thinks the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be decreased has risen 16 percentage points since last month to 64% -- a record number in the CBS News Poll." [CBS News, 6/8/11]

Washington Post-ABC News poll

The Washington 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." [Washington Post, 5/7/11]

For the full NSN Special Report "The Consensus for Substantial Reductions in Afghanistan," click here.