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Nine Years Later: Uncertainty Over Afghanistan Withdrawal

Chryst'l Sanchez |
October 6, 2010 | 3:43 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year, we spoke with Michael Parks, USC professor of journalism and expert in Middle East affairs, and Michael Keane, USC assistant professor of clinical finance and national security expert, to gain some perspective.

Troops in Afghanistan in 2007 (Creative Commons)
Troops in Afghanistan in 2007 (Creative Commons)

Obama set July 2011 as his goal for withdrawing U.S. forces. At this point, do you think Obama will keep troops there for the long haul, pull them out as quickly as possible like he promised, or something in between?

Michael Parks (MP): It’s a very difficult question to answer because you have to make a judgment on the battlefield situation, on the domestic political situation in Afghanistan, the domestic political situation in the U.S., and then there is the almost unknowable which is: what is Al-Qaeda going to do—what are its plans? 

So you can make all your own plans to stay the course, or to pull back on schedule. But at the time you're doing that, your enemies are also making plans. And you don’t know those and so whether Obama meets his schedule, you can prognosticate on.

But there is a big unknowable out there: what’s Al-Qaeda going to do?  What are its plans? Journalists can’t ask, “So, Mr. Bin Laden, what are you going to do? “ They have far more adaptability.

Pakistan is an inherently unstable country and a major factor in the equation too. The big difficulty with Pakistan is that, for a lot of its own domestic reasons, the intelligence services have been working with or allowing Al-Qaeda to operate. So what leverage does the U.S. have? To answer it, you have to know the most obvious things. But then you have to assess and predict what the situation will be in Pakistan.     

They may have to keep people there in order to preserve the gains already made.  We could have an equally bad outcome.  Anytime you begin to set deadlines, it’s an encouragement to your adversaries, “Just to wait, they’ll be gone.”

Gen. Petraeus is following his own doctrine in how to deal with these civil conflict situations that spill into the global sphere.

Michael Keane (MK): There’s been a lot of discussion what he meant by this statement. Whether he’d pull out all the troops, or the extra 30,000 troops he surged.  The statement itself is not really definitive.  The vice president says all troops coming out. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said troop withdrawals would be dictated by conditions on the grounds. The administration has not been clear.

US-led NATO forces say that they are there to fight terrorism and take down the Taliban.  Have they succeeded?  If not, why haven’t there been any results?

MP: They have made progress. Taliban’s not in power. There is an authentic Afghan government in power now.  We may criticize the election, but it’s an authentic Afghan government and it’s in power. But how much of a country is there to run? Afghanistan is more of a nation of valleys than it is what we think of as a nation-state. The valleys are occupied by traditional clan groupings that have traditional leaders. That’s kind of the character of Afghanistan. It’s not like we’re talking about Kansas; we’re talking about a country where the geography is quite important where you can’t just go over to the next village. It’s also a country that has traditional forms of government that are not the outcome of a continental congress, such as what the U.S. has. It has its way of doing things. So the degree to which the U.S./NATO coalition can impose their will is limited.

MK: There’s an assessment due in December in terms of what success we’ve achieved so we have to wait to hear what Gen. Petraeus will say. It’s premature to say what the result of the last surge has been. So it’s too early to see since the new troops have been there for about a month.

What improvements have foreign aid brought to Afghanistan and their people?

MK: Pro: Brought economic development to the country. Con: Some of that aid gets diverted to bad ailment, such as the Taliban.

How do the Afghan civilians perceive U.S. forces?  What is their general attitude towards the troops occupying their land?

MK: We’re not occupying their land. We’re there to help them defeat the insurgency. The foreign troops are perceived generally positively. Taliban is perceived very negatively. Their government isn’t perceived very great either.

Are there more troops in place than ever before or in these last nine years?

MK: Obama sent 30,000 troops in the most recent surge. He brought 20,000 or 30,000 before that. He’s tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan from 30,000 to almost 100,000.

According to Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press, “U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June that the U.S. and its NATO partners have to show progress before the end of this year or face a decline in public support for the war.”  Haven’t they already been declining?  How have feelings in the US home front toward the Afghanistan war changed from Oct. 7, 2001, to now?

MK: There will be more significant further erosions.  It doesn’t imply it hasn’t been declining.


Reach staff reporter Chryst'l Sanchez here.

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