President Obama's decision to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by next summer is unlikely to be greeted enthusiastically by anyone. Those on the far left and right of the political spectrum - unlikely soulmates on this issue - will complain that the withdrawal is far too modest and does little to reduce our commitment to this war.
Those who believe that any withdrawal at this critical time would negate the successes our troops have won on the battlefield, and open the door to a restoration of al-Qaida safe havens, will cry that the President is "snatching defeat from the jaws of imminent victory." They will argue that such a decision is best left in the hands of the generals in the field and the Pentagon leadership, who have recommended zero or minimal force reductions.
What struck me most is how fast the President seems to have abandoned his position that not only was this the "Good War," in contrast to the Iraq "quagmire," but that this was a "War of Necessity." This is not a "war of choice," but a war that had to be won. He lamented - once again - that we squandered time, manpower and resources in Iraq, while the Taliban reasserted control over large parts of Afghanistan, a country far more critical to our national interests.
This is not to say that there are insufficient reasons to justify a withdrawal. The main target of our efforts, Osama bin Laden, is dead and lying at the bottom of the ocean. The leadership of al-Qaida has been decimated, leaving it a spent force. The Taliban remains a formidable force in that it can strike at will, but it cannot control any territory or population. Finally, there has been a significant increase in the size, if not the capability, of the Afghan security forces.
Obama risks losing these gains, which are fragile at best, however. The central Afghan government is weak and corrupt, the Afghan security forces unproven on the battlefield, the Taliban can threaten virtually any target in the country, and, our biggest concern, neighboring Pakistan still provides sanctuaries for insurgent forces and Muslim radicals.
The impetus for the withdrawal lies here at home. Polls show that America is weary of this war, and more than 60 percent favor bringing our troops home immediately. The country wants more focus on "nation building" here, not in some remote Southwest Asian country. They want the $100 billion a year the war costs redirected domestically to help jump start the economic recovery. And they worry how many more caskets will be flown into Dover, how many more "wounded warriors" we will treat, how many cases of battlefield stress we must address.
Even after we reduce our presence in Afghanistan by 33,000 troops by next summer, there will still be 67,000 U.S. servicemen deployed there - double the number we had in country when Obama took office. In addition there are presently 40,000 other coalition forces in country, although how long they will stay given our force reduction is questionable.
American strategy will now hinge increasingly on "counter-terrorism" strikes, primarily by drones, and training of Afghan security forces, with "COIN" population-centric, counter-insurgency operations - relegated to the back seat. This is a risk for Obama, who has repeatedly stated that this is a war that must be won. However, the risks to the Presidency of pursuing an increasingly unpopular war as the 2012 elections loom appear to be even greater in the eyes of the White House.
This force reduction is not the start of any global retrenchment nor are we "running for the exits." In view of the difficult economic conditions at home, the war weariness that has set in, and the elusive nature of victory in this far off land, the President's decision was understandable, if not inspirational.
• Tyrus W. Cobb is former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.