National Journal’s National Security Insiders are divided down the middle over whether President Obama’s plan to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year will give the military enough time to accomplish its goals during the spring fighting season. In an instant poll conducted within 15 minutes of Obama’s speech, a narrow majority also said Obama's plan to withdraw all 33,000 surge troops by the end of next summer risks jeopardizing recent gains.
In his prime-time speech on Wednesday night, President Obama announced his plan to bring home 10,000 troops by the end of the year. A senior Pentagon official familiar with the plan told National Journal that one brigade of 5,000 troops will leave the country this summer and another 5,000 will withdraw by the end of the year. Obama plans to pull out the remaining 23,000 surge forces by no later than next September—several months sooner than expected.
(RELATED: Full Text of Obama's Speech)
Exactly half of National Security Insiders disagreed with Obama's near-term strategy to bring home so many troops during the Afghan fighting season, a notorious offensive launched by militants during the hot spring and summer months. Obama’s plan is “illogical” for several reasons, one Insider said. “The fighting season goes on through October. Why pull out in the middle of it? He surged to win and exit, now he is inviting a protracted war because there are fewer troops to reinvest."
The other half said the strategy would enable the U.S.-led coalition to continue its fight against militants. Several acknowledged the increasing pressure by Obama's liberal base and even some Republican lawmakers to accelerate the drawdown of the increasingly unpopular and costly Afghan war. "Given the political realities on the ground in the United States, this was a courageous move for the president," one Insider said. "He will take fire from all sides for this decision."
Some Insiders were less sympathetic to this political pressure, and said Obama was more concerned with his reelection campaign than success in the war-torn country after a decade of conflict. "It illustrates that domestic politics weigh more than international security. The fact that he dismissed the advice of his ... top military advisers is incredulous to me," one Insider said.
Obama’s new strategy, which will leave around 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan next fall, is based on a faster timetable than what military commanders advised. The Pentagon wanted to keep the remaining 23,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2012, and a senior official there said top commander Gen. David Petraeus feels like he lost the internal debate over the timing of the drawdown and does not support the current plan.
Fifty-three percent said the plan to withdraw the surge troops by next summer risks jeopardizing recent gains. “He should listen to his commanders in the field and withdraw only when conditions warrant, one Insider said. "Laying out a political timetable for pulling out may satisfy his base but gives hope to Taliban and al-Qaida that America does not have the will to stay till we can leave a stable country. If he wants to honor fallen soldiers and others who fought, finish the job.”
Twenty-nine percent of Insiders said the move strikes the right balance between political and public pressure and military goals. As the American public’s support for the war continues to erode outside this select pool of national-security experts, one Insider noted that “bringing home even more troops would have been in the national interest, but the balance the president struck probably represents the most it was reasonable to expect.”
Even with the complete withdrawal of the surge forces by next summer, 18 percent of Insiders said Obama's strategy will still leave too many troops in Afghanistan. “The U.S. cannot sustain such an extensive foreign presence. History warns that such ventures bring enormous cost,” one Insider said.
A survey of NJ’s National Security Insiders released earlier this month found 57 percent of Insiders said they would support a “modest” withdrawal of 5,000 or fewer troops leaving in July.
1. Will withdrawing 10,000 troops by the end of the year give the military enough time to accomplish its goals during the spring fighting season?
- Yes 50%
- No 50%
"Commanders will retain sufficient combat power and nearly two-thirds of the original surge force. Success ahead requires a reliable Afghan partner."
"Cutting one brigade this summer still leaves enough to wage an effective fight against the Taliban."
"Yes, if we define our goals in the appropriately limited way the president did."
"If withdrawals start only after the summer fighting is over -- it may not have much effect this year. But the broad message he's sending -- we're on our way out -- may actually invite a higher level of warfare. More casualties, in other words, not fewer."
"Wishful thinking of the kind where politics trumps national security. Also, deja vu all over again read: Vietnam circa 1973. Except then the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese had no ability or inclination to follow us back to America. Both al-Qaida and it allies certainly have both now."
"Military said 5,000 troops; political advisors said 15,000; Obama said 10,000. Seems like strategy by division."
"We have troop-level strategies before we have ground truth. That's crazy."
2. What do you think about Obama’s overall plan to bring home all 33,000 “surge” troops by the end of next summer?
- Risks Jeopardizing Recent Gains 53%
- Still Leaves Too Many Troops in Afghanistan 18%
- Strikes the Right Balance 29%
Risks Jeopardizing Recent Gains:
"The big risk Obama is taking is that he has agreed to do just enough to fail. He'll get credit for making a well-intentioned try. But who'll remember that if the entire enterprise is a fiasco? This is a bolder move than he probably realizes, and not in a good way."
"He should listen to his commanders in the field and withdraw only when conditions warrant. Laying out a political timetable for pulling out may satisfy his base but gives hope to Taliban and al-Qaida that America does not have the will to stay until we can leave a stable country. If he wants to honor fallen solders and others who fought, finish the job."
"We've now told al-Qaida and the Taliban that all they have to do is chill for a couple of years and Afghanistan is theirs. We've also enabled [current al-Qaida leader Ayman] Zawahiri to declare victory for al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden always said that al Qaeda would exhaust us and undermine us just as the mujahideen did two decades ago with the Soviet Union."
"This was a deeply political speech. The President's policy announcement has everything to do with his reelection campaign and very little to do with how to achieve success in Afghanistan.”
Still Leaves Too Many Troops in Afghanistan:
"We should leave Afghanistan to its own devices."
"The US cannot sustain such an extensive foreign presence. History warns that such ventures bring enormous cost."
Strikes the Right Balance:
"The withdrawal pace is slow enough to allow Afghan security forces to build a critical mass of capacity, and political elites to replace or reshape the government to make it more consistent with Afghanistan's history of highly decentralized rule and of significant power-sharing. The pace of withdrawal is also fast enough to be politically sustainable in the U.S."
"I believe it enables ISAF to retain the necessary combat strength to still support the Afghan National Security Forces and craft the conditions on the ground that will support goals for the Chicago summit."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
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