June 22, 2011

CNAS Expert Commentary on President Obama's Afghanistan Speech

his speech tonight, President Obama announced the removal of 10,000 American
troops by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 troops by September
2012, withdrawing a little more than the 30,000 troop surge he ordered in
December 2009.  CNAS experts offered the following analysis on this


By Lieutenant General David W. Barno,
USA (Ret.), Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow

"President Obama's long-anticipated speech outlining the specifics
implementing the start of the drawdown in Afghanistan will ultimately please no
one. His domestic critics on the left will assail its speed and numbers, while
those on the right will argue that he has put at serious risk many of the gains
that have been painfully achieved over the last eighteen months. In Afghanistan
and the region, observers will find precious little in the speech to reassure
them about prospects for an enduring long-term U.S. commitment beyond 2014. On
the military front, the president gave commanders impressive flexibility this
year by linking the withdrawal of the first 10,000 troops of the surge to the
year's end. But he inexplicably removed all such flexibility next year by
requiring the remaining 23,000 surge troops to be withdrawn by the summer of
2012 -- necessitating their removal from combat at the height of the fighting
season. This problem of untimely diminished capabilities can be overcome by the
commanders on the ground, yet opens questions about the nature of the
calculus.  But in the end, the key strategic issue for the United States
will be whether America's friends and adversaries around the world assess this
speech an expression of U.S. resolve -- or as the starting gun signaling a
wider U.S. global retrenchment.”

By John Nagl, CNAS President

“President Obama has correctly noted that the Taliban is smaller and far less
capable, and that the Afghan security forces are larger and more capable, than
they were when the Afghan surge began almost two years ago. He is betting that
a smaller American force, combined with our NATO and Afghan allies, will be
able to continue the counterinsurgency campaign until, by the end of 2014, only
a residual presence of American advisors and Special Forces are required to
secure American interests in the region. He is probably right, but LtGen John
Allen will have some difficult choices to make about battlefield geometry—how
and where he arrays his remaining forces—as he assumes command of the Afghan
mission this summer.”

By Kristin Lord, Vice President and
Director of Studies

deciding to withdraw 33,000 American troops by next summer, President Obama
made a difficult but correct decision. While U.S. military commanders should
retain maximum flexibility to shape the nature of this drawdown, and while it
will create new risks in Afghanistan, the sapping of American economic power is
now a greater risk.  The costs of such a high level of commitment in
Afghanistan now exceed the benefits to American security interests, and the
President’s announcement should spark a broader reconsideration of U.S.
priorities. Yet, this partial drawdown of forces should not prompt a run for
the exits. America should not make the mistake of abandoning its partners or
forgetting its regional security interests. Rather, it should pledge enduring
economic, diplomatic, and military support to those capable of sustaining a
better future for the region and, by extension, the protection of American

By Nora Bensahel, Senior Fellow and
Deputy Director of Studies

Obama’s plan to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer will be
widely unpopular. Many military analysts and personnel warn that the withdrawal
is too rapid: it jeopardizes the progress that has been made at such high cost,
which would not be the case if those troops remained for even a few more
months. Most Americans, however, will not focus on the troops that are
withdrawing, but on the troops that are staying. Almost 70,000 U.S. troops will
remain in Afghanistan through 2013 and into 2014, even though a majority of
Americans now favor bringing the troops home as quickly as possible. In the
coming weeks and months, the president will need to clearly and consistently
communicate the continuing U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan and why an
enduring partnership with Afghanistan will continue to benefit the United

By Robert Kaplan, Senior Fellow

Obama's troop withdrawal announcement  has more to do with domestic
politics than with the operational requirements of dealing with facts on the
ground. The president must be hoping that even with fewer troops, the situation
on the ground will be sufficiently stabilized by 2014 to make this withdrawal
seem smart from hindsight. For he will ultimately be judged not by how many
troops he withdraws now - no matter the domestic political realities - but by
how Afghanistan turns out down the road. Meanwhile, the biggest impediment to
progress is the Afghan government's own lack of institutional capacity.”

By Patrick Cronin, Senior Advisor and
Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Program

will judge the president by whether they think he can reduce America’s Afghan
burden without sparking wider conflict or looking irresolute by abandoning a
‘necessary’ war. As important as it is for the United States to get serious
about aligning its expansive ends with its finite means, the rationale for
downsizing in Afghanistan should be based on a more realistic, clear and
compelling objective, and not just our newfound appreciation for balancing the
check book.”

By Richard Fontaine, Senior Advisor and
Senior Fellow

president has a difficult task in balancing the imperative to succeed in
Afghanistan with the desires of a war-weary American public and pressing
economic concerns at home. But the withdrawal timeline he laid out in this
evening’s address will, I hope, be subject to further refinement. Under the
current plan, the bulk of surge forces will leave in the middle of the 2012
fighting season. By keeping them in place for just two or three additional
months, the military could deploy near-maximum combat power next year. The
extraordinary costs of this war are daunting, but the accelerated reduction
will make only a relatively small dent in the total cost, which will probably
hit $100 billion in 2012. The United States continues to have vital national
interests bound up in Afghanistan’s success, and I hope that the administration
will revisit its withdrawal plans as conditions on the ground evolve.”

By Brian Burton, Fellow

again, U.S. interests and strategy have been largely overshadowed by what
should be a second-order debate over the size and timing of upcoming troop
withdrawals in Afghanistan. President Obama was wise to expand his remarks to
include an appreciation of U.S. interests in the region and beyond. However,
the decision announced by the president is unlikely to positively impact other
critical aspects of the war, notably the commitment of the NATO allies and
Afghan and Pakistani leaders’ perceptions of American staying power. More
broadly, the short-term focus of the current debate over troop numbers comes at
the expense of long-term strategic thinking about the nature of the threats
posed by transnational violent extremist groups in the region and the most
effective approaches toward mitigating them.”

By Travis Sharp, Bacevich Fellow

withdrawal of U.S. surge forces from Afghanistan will at best generate very
modest budgetary savings. In fact, some savings will be consumed by additional
costs related to the withdrawal, such as transporting troops out of theater,
repairing worn out equipment, and increasing funds to train Afghan security
forces. Political leaders may try to frame the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces
as fiscally responsible, but tonight's announcement does virtually nothing to
solve the nation’s long term fiscal challenges.”

By Matt Irvine, Researcher

with the withdrawal of the surge forces by summer next year, more than 68,000
soldiers and Marines will remain in the country into 2013, double the number at
the start of president Obama’s term. The real tests for the U.S. war strategy
will be how to manage the remainder of those forces into 2014 and beyond and
the long-term trajectory of the ever-turbulent U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Without a clear plan for the future role of the U.S. in Afghanistan and
Pakistan, the administration risks sending mixed signals to both our allies and
enemies, limiting the prospects for a long-term political solution to the
conflict and lasting stability in the region.”



  • At its Fifth Annual Conference on June 2, 2011,
    CNAS featured the roundtable discussion, "Afghanistan, Pakistan,
    and Al Qaeda: 10 Years After 9/11 and Beyond," with Rajiv
    Chandrasekaran, The Washington Post; Lieutenant
    General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), CNAS; Steve Coll, New America
    Foundation; Ambassador Anne Patterson, Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan;
    and Bing West, author of The Wrong War. Read the transcript and watch the video.
  • CNAS also
    featured a keynote address by Army Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez,
    Commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command
    (IJC) and Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, titled
    "Afghanistan 2011: The Operational Commander's Perspective." Read
    the transcript and watch the video.


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