No Easy Way Out

Obama wrestles with a withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Pete Souza / Official White House Photo

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai from his vehicle outside the Jane E. Lawton Community Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Sunday, March 11, 2012.

The war in Afghanistan never looked so hopeless as it did in the days after an American soldier walked from his base near Kandahar and murdered 16 civilians, including nine children, in their homes. The massacre may have been the brutal act of a lone man. But it also felt like a last straw, one nasty turn too many in a conflict lately defined by grim episodes: the murder of the Afghan government's top peace negotiator, Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters and the sacrilegious burning of Korans by U.S. troops innocently trying to dispose of them. That last incident produced bitter anti-American riots and the murder of two U.S. officers, allegedly by an Afghan policeman, at Kabul's highly secure Interior Ministry. "There's a sense that things are out of control," says Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, now with the Center for a New American Security, "and that it is going to be difficult to find a successful endgame."

Publicly, President Obama says there will be no "rush for the exits," as he put it, standing by his plan to pull out 22,000 of the roughly 90,000 troops in the country by this fall, with the rest slated to leave by the end of 2014. But by one account leaked to the New York Times (though officially denied by the White House), Obama's advisers are contemplating an accelerated pace that could bring home 10,000 more troops by the end of this year and an additional 10,000 to 20,000 by mid-2013. That would give Obama's generals less time than they had hoped for to beat back the Taliban. It is also a bow to political reality. "Momentum is gathering for the idea that we need to draw down sooner rather than later," says Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Obama inherited the Afghanistan war, but he prioritized it as a candidate in 2008 and then chose to escalate it to the tune of 51,000 troops after taking office. But winding down the war promises to be more complicated than embracing it.

Start with strategy. The danger in leaving too fast is that Kabul's shaky national army and police force are nowhere near ready to stand on their own. An accelerated withdrawal means less training for those forces and less time to further weaken the Taliban before the American military leaves. But that training mission has been made vastly more complicated, and perhaps impossible, by several recent killings of Western troops by the Afghans they were advising. That may lend weight to Joe Biden's long-held view that the best strategy involves a small local counterterrorism force narrowly focused on preventing al-Qaeda from regrouping. The Biden approach is more compelling with Osama bin Laden dead and what remains of al-Qaeda mostly scattered in places like Yemen and Somalia.

Relatively speaking, Obama's political calculation is simpler. A clear majority of Americans oppose the war and want out whether or not the Afghans are prepared to defend themselves. The once resilient support of Republicans has begun to slip, and even a foreign policy hawk like Newt Gingrich now suggests that "we are not going to fix Afghanistan. It is not possible."

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