For the first time since the start of the war in Afghanistan, the United States is starting to think concretely about its exit strategy. And none too soon: according to recent polling, public support for the war has fallen off a cliff since last year, with two-thirds of Americans now saying that the war is no longer worth fighting. Nearly three-quarters, meanwhile, say that they want President Barack Obama to withdraw substantial numbers of forces in July, when the president has promised to begin a drawdown.
The extent of that drawdown is still uncertain. While some administration officials have said that the withdrawal would involve only token forces—a few thousand or so—a former Pentagon official told me that the White House might take out as many as 30,000 troops between July and December. Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan, told me that the goal in the first phase is to unwind Obama’s most recent surge, taking out 30,000 troops, but that it might take as long as 12 to 18 months to complete the pullout. That would still leave about 70,000 US forces personnel in Afghanistan, whose gradual withdrawal would take until 2014, when the Afghan National Army and police are supposed to take over responsibility for security.
More important than projected troop numbers, however—after all, troop levels can be adjusted at will—is the fact that the United States is now signalling openly that it wants to focus on a political and diplomatic solution, one that involves talking to the Taliban. In a little-noticed speech to the Asia Society in New York on February 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a series of significant shifts in US policy in Afghanistan. Where previously the United States had insisted that before talks could begin, the Taliban had to accept a number of preconditions—namely, that it must renounce violence, abandon its ties to al-Qaeda, and accept the Afghanistan constitution—in her speech, Clinton made clear that these were no longer preconditions for talks but only ‘necessary outcomes of any negotiation.’
Clinton also gave her full support to ‘reconciliation’ with the armed opposition in Afghanistan, meaning a political bargain with the Taliban leadership, rather than ‘reintegration,’ which wuld entail the recruitment of low-level Taliban into pro-government ranks. ‘I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable,’ Clinton told her audience. ‘And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.’