As the Obama administration debates how many U.S. troops to bring home from Afghanistan this summer, 57 percent of National Journal’s National Security Insiders would prefer to see a more “modest” withdrawal of 5,000 or fewer troops. Separately, a slight majority of Insiders said the U.S. should not provide more aircraft to further pressure embattled leader Muammar el-Qaddafi to step down.
As Washington buzzes with speculation over the size and scope of the initial drawdown of the 100,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, 30 of 53 Insiders said they want only 5,000 or fewer troops leaving in July. "It makes no sense to pull out a large number of troops in the middle of the Afghan fighting season," one Insider said, referring to the notorious offensives launched by militants during the hot spring and summer months. "Wait until October for bigger withdrawals.”
President Obama is under increasing pressure from his liberal base and some Republican lawmakers to reduce the costs of the war in Afghanistan and prepare for a significant reduction in troops this summer. The death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden fueled calls in Congress to accelerate the drawdown and start bringing the increasingly unpopular war to a close. In one of the most ambitious targets to date, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he wants 15,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by December.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on his farewell tour in Afghanistan that reducing U.S. military presence too quickly could threaten the "fragile and reversible" coalition gains.
“The stakes are too high to let domestic poll numbers or an Osama bin Laden death drive an premature withdrawal,” one Insider said. Another added: “Obama needs to show he is making good on campaign commitments, but pulling out too many too quickly will destabilize the country and reverse progress we have made thus far.”
Fourty-three percent of Insiders said they would prefer to see a more significant withdrawal. “The U.S. must remember its original war aims in Afghanistan. We do not have to train and sustain a large Afghan military on standards akin to NATO's or our own,” one Insider said. “I am now seeing indications that our largest obstacle to withdrawing from Afghanistan may well be our own military leaders mind-set that ‘If I just had six more months, I could really train them to be even better.’”
In Libya, Qaddafi is still refusing to step down even as NATO intensifies its airstrikes on key targets in the capital. European leaders have been privately urging Obama to step up the U.S. role in the mission by deploying A-10 attack planes and AC-130 gunships, which are capable of destroying tanks and other mobile targets. So far, the U.S. has remained in a supporting role in the air campaign and has not deployed the additional combat aircraft.
A narrow majority (28 Insiders) said President Obama should not agree to European requests for more U.S. aircraft; 25 said he should provide these assets to ramp up the pressure on Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Some Insiders cautioned against getting “more sucked into their war” by providing aircraft, but suggested developing more "creative” alternatives. “Leasing them aircraft for them to use would meet the political need without upping our investment," one Insider said. Another added: "Give them what they need: missiles and ammo."
Another Insider called the intervention in Libya "a mistake to begin with," but said the U.S. should still cooperate with the European requests. "Now that [the mission] is under way, it’s better to topple Qaddafi sooner rather than later,” the Insider said.
In deciding how many U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, do you think President Obama should opt for a more “modest” withdrawal of 5,000 or fewer troops?
- Yes 57%
- No 43%
Yes: "Keeping the total higher will allow steeper reductions later. Moving too quickly now only increases the risk that the whole policy will seem a complete mess next year—and no matter what Republicans say about wanting to get out, they will not fail to attack Obama on this next year if things are unraveling there. If the president wants this to be a controlled, back-burner election-year non-issue, he's got to be patient."
No: "It has been time to start drawing down for a while. As fragile as the Afghan security forces can be, they are ultimately responsible for their country. We cannot govern or stabilize it. And we are being sucked into a web of corruption, greed, and incompetence which is corrupting our mission and integrity."
Should President Obama agree to European requests for more U.S. aircraft to intensify the air war in Libya and increase pressure on Muammar el-Qaddafi to leave?
- Yes 47%
- No 53%
Yes: "The President needs to get over his allergy to regime change. If he wasn’t prepared to get rid of Qaddafi, he should never have gotten into a shooting war with him. And having gotten into such a war, the only near term exit strategy (other than accepting defeat) is to remove Qaddafi from power as soon as possible."
No: "No more aircraft for Libya. Let’s keep focused on our strategic priorities."
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.
This article appears in the June 13, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.