Eighteen months ago, President Obama ordered a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, a prudent strategy reflecting conditions on the ground. Yet he also made the imprudent decision to publicly announce an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal beginning this month. This date had nothing to do with military strategy, but President Obama insisted on it, saying, "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."
Last month, the president announced a sharp drawdown that conforms to that politically motivated timetable. This drawdown will remove 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year, followed by 23,000 more by next summer. On June 28, the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John Allen, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president's decision is more aggressive than any option provided by Gen. David H. Petraeus and other commanders on the ground.
I am deeply concerned that the pace and size of the president's drawdown risks the fragile gains achieved by our troops since the surge was fully implemented in November. This drawdown will make it difficult, if not impossible, to press our advantage against the enemies that threaten our homeland.
The United States and our Afghan partners have reached a critical moment in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency strategy enabled by the surge has been an operational success and reversed the Taliban's momentum. The Taliban increasingly are resorting to desperate attacks against civilians - the kind of behavior that turned the Iraqi population against the extremists in that country. The Afghan army is expanding, and its training is accelerating; the army will take over the lead in security in seven provinces and cities next month.
Rather than use these gains as a justification for withdrawing from Afghanistan, we must recognize that this progress is fragile and reversible - just as the administration reported three months ago - and insist that it be protected vigorously.
Our allied coalition is in the midst of ongoing operations to repel a Taliban counteroffensive. Now is not the time to give our enemies a breather but rather to knock them to the mat. If we are able to consolidate the gains in southern Afghanistan through this fighting season and the next, major population centers in the south will enjoy meaningful security for the first time in decades. A successful fighting season this year would pave the way for the United States and its partners to extend the surge into eastern Afghanistan and deliver a decisive blow to the remaining Taliban and the Haqqani network operations centers. Moreover, it would send a strong message to the people and leaders of Afghanistan and their neighbors in Pakistan that the extremists will not be allowed to return to power in Afghanistan.
Accomplishing these goals, however, requires a firm commitment to the mission and the resources necessary for success. As one example, the president emphasized the importance of our training mission in Afghanistan in his speech last week. Yet even with the surge forces in place, the NATO Training Mission still lacks the required number of trainers to fully meet its objectives. To ensure that our combat and training missions are not jeopardized, I will closely scrutinize not only the number of forces the president plans to redeploy, but the location and composition of those forces. I agree with former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates that any responsible plan for transition should retain our combat presence, which must include sufficient enablers.
Senior military leaders have been cautioning for months that the drawdown in Afghanistan should be modest and that a significant withdrawal would risk hard-won progress. Unfortunately, it seems the debate over the drawdown gave way to a sentiment Mr. Gates warned about in March. He said then, "Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right. Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight. Too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy, and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave."
I heard nothing in the president's speech about getting the job done right. This lack of resolve is useful propaganda for the Taliban and could be a serious blow to the morale of our troops, who are left to wonder why they're in Afghanistan if we are not in it to win it.
As the president implements his drawdown plan, I hope he will pay increased attention to the warnings of Mr. Gates and others. Moving forward, we must be guided by strategic objectives, not poll numbers. We must respond to conditions on the ground, not conditions inside the Beltway. Most of all, we must be driven by victory, not politics. For whatever disagreements we might have about military strategy, one thing remains certain: The United States cannot afford to abandon Afghanistan again.