KABUL — As United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates continued his victory lap through Afghanistan’s combat zones Monday, the debate over the pace of the coming troop withdrawal gathered steam.
Gates was on his 12th and final visit to Afghanistan in his current job: He is due to retire within weeks of his return to the United States.
As he dispensed and collected kudos in his meetings with the troops in Kandahar, Helmand, Paktika and Kabul, Gates had one consistent message: Any drawdown must be gradual, and should start with support troops, not with combat forces.
"If it were up to me, I'd leave the shooters to last," he told troops at the base outside Kandahar city, according to numerous media reports.
A hasty retreat could send a signal to Afghanistan’s troublesome neighbors that it was once again open season on the volatile country.
"We don't want the Afghans or any others in the region to think we're pulling up stakes and taking (off) out of here," Gates told troops in Helmand.
With Pakistan, Iran and Russia, all professing to have strategic interests in Afghanistan, a continued U.S. presence could provide a necessary stabilizing influence; at least, this is what some of President Hamid Karzai’s closest aides seem to think.
Karzai’s national security adviser, Rangin Dadfur Spanta, told the New York Times on Sunday that the Afghan government was planning on a close relationship with the United States for a decade or more.
But as Obama considers his options ahead of a promised announcement on the withdrawal later this month, he has a host of domestic concerns to deal with. A shaky economy has left more than 9 percent of Americans jobless, while Congress explores ways to gut healthcare for the elderly. Unhappy at home, Americans are, frankly, tired of a $100-billion-a-year effort in a country they know or care little about. Polls show that up to two-thirds of Americans believed the war in Afghanistan was no longer worth fighting, even before the killing of Osama bin Laden deprived the war of its most powerful justification.
Patience for the decade-long venture in Afghanistan is wearing thin, and with a presidential race heating up, Obama is going to have to put voter concerns in the mix.
There are now approximately 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 30,000 of which were added last year in a much-debated “surge.”
At his West Point speech on December 1, 2009, when he announced the troop increase, Obama promised that he would begin to bring the troops home in July 2011.
The question now is whether to honor that pledge with a symbolic withdrawal — a few thousand soldiers, drawn mainly from the support staff, or whether to make significant cuts that would signal a serious commitment to get out of Afghanistan.
Some have predicted that the withdrawal would be limited to 3,000-5,000 troops; newer estimates are closer to 10,000.
But no one wants to hazard a guess as to how the drawdown, real or perceived, will affect the situation. Indeed, the debate on the future of Afghanistan, and the exact nature of the upcoming troop reduction, has lately become so muddled as to cause vertigo in the unwary.
Gates has said that the U.S. must maintain a steady military pressure on the Taliban so as to compel them to negotiate.
"The prospects for a political settlement do not become real until the Taliban and other adversaries … begin to conclude they cannot win militarily," Gates said at an Asian security summit in Singapore prior to his arrival in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban have insisted, loudly and repeatedly, that they will counter force with force, and have staged a convincing demonstration of this in their spring offensive, called Operation Badar.
At a base near Kandahar on Sunday, Gates praised the “amazing” progress the troops had made: “Over the last year, essentially you have ejected the Taliban from their home territory,” he said.
But in the past few months, the Taliban have staged several showcase events in Kandahar and elsewhere that cast a bit of doubt on the validity of that statement.
In early May they staged a complex attack in the center of Kandahar that killed dozens and paralyzed the city for days.
With the Taliban threatening more attacks, fear is once again spreading among the civilian population.
“In Kandahar, living is limited to breathing in and out, nothing more,” said an Afghan doctor who had recently returned from the city.
The insurgency has spread to the north as well: In late May the Taliban killed a prominent police commander in Takhar province, along with six others, including two German soldiers.
A recent report from Balkh states that many villages in that province are being quietly taken over by the Taliban, with no resistance and no publicity.
Despite all the brave talk among the U.S. defense establishment of Taliban momentum “halted” or “reversed,” the insurgents do not seem to be going anywhere.
All of this is compounded by an increasingly unstable Afghan president, who cannot seem to make up his mind whether he is courting the international presence or excoriating it.
In recent weeks he has threatened NATO with a jihad against an “occupying force,” while assiduously negotiating a strategic partnership agreement that he hopes will keep his foreign backers and protectors around for years — perhaps decades — to come.
But to be fair to Karzai, he is receiving almost as many mixed signals as he is sending.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated categorically in February that the United States respects "Afghans’ proud history of resistance to foreign occupation, and we do not seek any permanent American military bases in their country.”
But others, including Gates and General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, have been just as adamant that the U.S. commitment will outlast the 2014 date set for final withdrawal.
Long-term U.S. bases are a prominent feature of the strategic partnership agreement, and Karzai is planning on calling a Loya Jirga, or Grand National Assembly, this summer to promote the idea to the Afghan people.
The Afghan president’s erratic behavior could possibly be explained by his own desperate attempts to ensure his survival in a constantly shifting landscape.
“Karzai is looking at all this talk of withdrawal, and he is getting scared,” said an Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He thinks the United States is leaving, but he knows that Pakistan and Iran will always be there. He has to see what he can do.”