The Washington Post had a thought-provoking editorial this morning. Excerpts:
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta floated an entirely different plan: an end to most U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan by the second half of 2013, a year earlier than expected, and a substantial cut in the previously planned size of the Afghan armed forces. So much for “fight.” Though Mr. Panetta didn’t say so, this strategy implies another big U.S. troop reduction in 2013, beyond the pullout of about one-third of troops already planned for this year. U.S. commanders have lobbied to keep the troop strength steady from this coming autumn until the end of 2014 — the current endpoint for the NATO military commitment.
The new timetable may sound good to voters when Mr. Obama touts it on the presidential campaign trail. But how will the Taliban, and its backers in Pakistan, interpret it? Before negotiations even begin, the administration has unilaterally and radically reduced the opposing force the Taliban can expect to face 18 months from now. Will Taliban leader Mohammad Omar have reason to make significant concessions between now and then? More likely, the extremist Islamic movement and an increasingly hostile Pakistani military establishment will conclude that the United States is desperate to get its troops out of Afghanistan, as quickly as possible — whether or not the Afghan government and constitution survive….
But if President Obama has decided to pursue that course, there’s an inevitable next question. If the goal of a stable and democratic Afghanistan is to be subordinated — if timetables are to be accelerated, regardless of conditions — why should U.S. ground troops fight and die this year?
That’s always the question, when timetables are given for withdrawal: If we’re going to withdraw at a certain time regardless of conditions, what’s the point of fighting now?
It’s a brutally tough question whether you come at it from the direction of a hawk or a dove.