Afghan President Hamid Karzai has proposed a new deadline of 2014 for U.S. withdrawal from his country. The communiqué published this week at the end of an international conference in the capitol of Kabul and attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a call for Afghan security forces to “lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.”
There has been an ongoing debate in Washington about the value of deadlines in managing counter insurgency campaigns. First the debate was over the time limits imposed on the surge in Iraq in 2007. Then the debate was over the wisdom of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from that country by August 2010 and complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. More recently there has been a hailstorm of criticism levied against President Obama for his statement that U.S. troops would begin leaving Afghanistan at the end of 2011. Proponents of deadlines claim that they focus the attention of local leaders on the need to take responsibility for their own security. Critics claim that they provide a false sense of the rapidity with which failed states can be reconstructed and that they tell our enemies how long they need to hold out for to win the conflict.
Both proponents and opponents of deadlines may be right but they also miss the most important role that deadlines play. They serve to focus U.S. attention and that of the international community on the need to get on with critical tasks. In the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, “The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Knowing that there is a time limit and fearing either outright defeat or the collapse of our local ally, the U.S. government must focus on what can and must be accomplished. When planners work backwards from a deadline to the present, knowing how long it can take to train forces, build infrastructure, hold elections, etc. their future course of action is made clear.
In Iraq, the imposition of a deadline compelled the U.S. to focus on two requirements. The first was creation of Iraqi security forces of sufficient size and quality to take responsibility for their country. The second was a stable political environment and minimally functional central government. In the face of a deadline, many things that had been on the “must do” list such as improving the electricity supply, rooting out corruption or creating an American-style democracy go out the window. This is good.
The 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan required military planners to limit their operations in that country. Given mounting evidence of the difficulties in implementing the “McChrystal strategy,” this was a good thing.
The 2014 deadline is exactly what is needed in Afghanistan. It forces decision makers to focus on the critical path to our exit from that country. On that critical path are only a few necessary steps. The first step is to create the capacity to train and equip an adequate Afghan security force. The second is to build such a force. The third step is to neutralize the Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. The final step is the establishment of a viable, not perfect or even corruption free central government. This last step certainly means finding some political accommodation with Taliban elements.
We can stop fighting now about who is in charge of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, if Karzai’s brother is a crook or whether it is a smart move to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy the Afghan air force Russian helicopters. A deadline of 2014 is both workable and a smart step. Now everyone knows the clock is ticking.
Find Archived Articles: