Controversy is swirling in Washington about whether the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of US troops in Afghanistan has contributed to a weakening of NATO commitment to the war. And on the other hand, the NYT is convinced that Pakistan is attempting to move in and pick up the pieces.
Breaking News: British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday that he wants British troops out of Afghanistan within 5 years. He said, “We cannot be there for another five years having effectively been there for nine years already.” He offered long-term “training missions” to the Afghanistan National Army.
Although few Americans realize it, one of the biggest contingents of NATO troops in Afghanistan is that of the Poles. But Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski just announced that he is setting 2012 as the date on which a Polish withdrawal will commence. Poland has about 2500 troops in Afghanistan, last I knew in Ghazni.
The announcement comes after Canada announced that its troops would leave Afghanistan in 2011.* The Canadian withdrawal creates real difficulties for the US, insofar as the Canadians (about 2800), have provided key assistance in the Qandahar area, such that US troops will have to take over security duties in that area.
Holland is withdrawing its troops in August, after debate on an open-ended stay in Afghanistan caused the government to fall.
Although there had been speculation that Australia would also begin a troop withdrawal in 2012, new prime minister Julia Gillard called President Obama on Thursday to reassure him that Australia’s approach would remain that of major NATO countries.
Still, the US is eager to find replacements for the departing Europeans, especially in the area of troop training, has suggested India join in that mission, much to the dismay of Pakistan, which sees Afghanistan as its sphere of influence.
Republican John McCain argues that the rush to the door by allies is in part impelled by President Obama’s having set summer, 2011, as the date for the beginning of the US withdrawal (though Obama stresses that the drawdown phase could be protracted).
McCain’s argument makes no sense. The US has the largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan, and if it gradually draws down, few would notice. He disregards how crushingly unpopular the war is with European publics. What is amazing is that the governments have been able to keep troops there for this long. And, the economic downturn is another impetus to cut their losses and go home. You can’t keep countries committed to a forever war that has no end in sight.
With Today’s announcement by Cameron, it seems to me that President Obama’s hopes of rallying NATO for a long-term nation-building role in Afghanistan are finished. As in Iraq, where US troop levels have fallen into the 80,000s from a peak of 170,000, the US will likely be alone as it leaves and turns out the lights.
*In an earlier version of this post I said that Michael Ignatieff had wanted to extend Canada’s stay in Afghanistan, but now see that he was, like Cameron, only talking about some post-2011 non-military role such as training.