‘Withdrawal timetables = defeat’?

December 2, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Posted in International | 3 Comments

You can tell that everyone’s getting pretty sick of war when even its proponents start regurgitating old arguments. This, from ConHome’s Alex Deane, might as well have been copied & pasted from some blogpost about withdrawal from Iraq:

As I’ve pointed out on this site before, once you set a timetable for withdrawal, you have doomed yourself to defeat. The enemy knows that he must merely wait you out – and, perhaps, force you to bring forward your timetable by escalating his efforts.

First, does that mean we’ve already been defeated in Iraq? Or are we just due for a defeat at some point in the not-too-distant future?

The next thing I’m confused about is the enemy’s apparently miraculous ability to ‘wait us out’ and ‘escalate his efforts’ against us. I’d always thought that to ‘wait someone out’ in combat meant reserving & consolidating your limited resources until it becomes opportune to strike again. To escalate suggests the opposite: that more resources (lives, money, weaponry, infrastructure) will be put at stake in order to inflict immediate losses on your foe. Is Deane really telling us that the Taliban are capable of doing both? If so, then we must be fighting insurgents who’re more advanced than any in the western world.

Deane’s next argument is basically that the Obama adminstration is making soldiers sad:

You demoralise your troops, who wonder why on earth they’re giving their all to an apparently important campaign that’s about to cease at some arbitrary near-future date; and you demoralise your allies in the country concerned, who now have a date on the calendar on which to focus their dread of your impending abandonment.

This is a classic case of tom-ay-toh vs tom-ah-toh. Where Deane sees demoralised troops and allies who’ve abandoned all hope in NATO’s mission, I’d expect that after 8 years of setbacks, under-resourcing, poorly-conceived objectives and thousands of deaths, the military might find that being given a set amount of time to achieve specific goals is a rather refreshing change. As for furrowing the brows of our Afghan allies, I’d argue that the timetable for Iraq withdrawal did achieve some progress in what was a collapsed & stagnant political process. Maybe the same trick won’t work in Afghanistan, but it’ll at least concentrate some minds in the Karzai administration that they’d better find ways of getting the state to function. Their jobs – and possibly even their lives – will depend upon it.

Beyond these two unconvincing arguments, I don’t think it’d hurt to note what President Obama actually said last night:

But taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We’ll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government — and, more importantly, to the Afghan people — that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

So the Afghan forces will begin to assume respsonsibility in July 2011, meaning America can begin to move some forces out of the country. How quickly that will happen was never stated, and it was stressed that conditions on the ground would need to be met. If a missing batallion of batshit jihadists suddenly stir from their cave in August there will still be a large American military presence, and when these forces have left, there will be a shiny new Afghan army to defend the peace (or so we’re told).

For what it’s worth, it’s always possible that Deane is right and this policy won’t succeed; Obama’s speech didn’t manage to convince me that it’s possible to hand over security to the Afghan people within that time, nor whether it’s even a good idea to give a corrupt & fraudulent government its own working military. But where Deane somehow sees withdrawal dates as an invitation to the enemy, I’d like to bet that if we do fail – after 10 years, two presidents, several different generals, tens of thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars – setting a date for withdrawal will be pretty low down the list of reasons why we lost.



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  1. As you say in your final paragraph, it really depends on what one counts as a defeat. The Taliban would never win a toe-to-toe pitched battle, and there’s no point in them putting forth more effort than necessary to keep the coalition ‘off balance’ now that a withdrawal date has been announced, so in the technicalities Deane is a tit.

    But withdrawal is a clear defeat for all the key objectives on which the wars were sold – and I think there are plenty of us who always saw this happening.

  2. Hi Dave,

    But withdrawal is a clear defeat for all the key objectives on which the wars were sold – and I think there are plenty of us who always saw this happening.

    Yeah, I think that’s a fair point. In some ways, Afghanistan was a war I missed; I wasn’t ‘awake’ politically whilst I was in 6th form, and only began developing a shifting poltical identity when I hit university, which coincided with Iraq, top-up-fees etc. I suppose I only started giving it the attention it’s due when it became used by some as the ‘good’ war in contrast to the ‘bad’ invasion of Iraq.

    The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether this strategy was the least worst option we could realistically have expected. As I said in an earlier piece, even if it had been decided to forgo a troop increase, we would’ve probably just had a ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy rather than counter insurgency. That was the option preferred by Joe Biden & would’ve led to god knows how many drone raids and ‘surgical strikes’ which may have been safer in terms of American lives, but probably would’ve been even more dangerous for the Afghans.

    Either way, however Afghanistan looks by the time all the troops are withdrawn, nobody should look back on this misadventure fondly.

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