How Afghans see Obama's withdrawal deadline
In The Post this week, I argue that Obama’s July, 2011 withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan is undermining our counterinsurgency strategy, because Afghans will not risk joining us in the fight if they think America will soon be leaving them to the mercy of the Taliban. The New York Times now confirms the effect the deadline is having on the battlefield. Peter Baker notes that Obama has in recent days sought to add nuance to the deadline, but:
that part of the message has not transmitted to many in the rural reaches of Afghanistan, where American troops regularly encounter Afghans who assume they are all leaving next year. In the village of Abdul Ghayas in Helmand Province last month, for example, a local resident exasperated two Marines when he told them that he was nervous about helping with their plans for a new school out of fear that the Taliban would retaliate after the Americans went home next year. "That’s why they won’t work with us," Cpl. Lisa Gardner, one of the Marines, told a reporter traveling with the unit. "They say you’ll leave in 2011 and the Taliban will chop their heads off. It’s so frustrating."
If millions of Afghans are coming to the same conclusion, and deciding not to work with the coalition for fear of retribution, the surge cannot possibly succeed.
Afghans have good reasons for their mistrust. They have not forgotten how the U.S. helped them defeat the Soviet Union in the 1980s, only to withdraw -- allowing the Taliban to impose its brutal rule, with mass executions in soccer stadiums and bans on girls going to school and children flying kites. As one intelligence official told the Times, “They’ve been burned, and they’ve seen this movie before.”
When they hear the president talk about withdrawal, Afghans don’t hear his promises not to “run for the exits” -- they think to themselves, “here we go again.” And who can blame them?
In Washington, we watch for small shifts in presidential rhetoric and divine large shifts in policy. Not in Afghanistan. A villager deciding whether to work with American forces in Helmand province does not follow to subtle nuances of Obama’s words. His memory and his ears tell him America is leaving soon. The president needs to send a clear message to that villager and the millions like him across Afghanistan that we will not abandon them to the Taliban a second time. The only way to do that is to repudiate his withdrawal deadline -- clearly and unequivocally -- and to begin making clear his resolve to prevail.
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