As General David Petraeous departs Afghanistan this week to take his new job in Washington DC as the Director of the CIA, there is widespread fear that his departure is the beginning of the end for Afghanistan.
America is withdrawing, and filling that power vacuum will be the dreaded Taliban, who never really left the scene. After 10 years of fighting, the United States, NATO Allies and Australian forces have failed to stabilize the country, defeat the Taliban, and hand over security to Afghans themselves.
The withdrawal - which begins with a draw down of 30,000 troops by next year and a total exit by 2014, is not what the generals have wanted. In fact, the generals have been somewhat unanimous in telling President Obama that what is needed is more, not less troops, and that a precipitous withdrawal could nullify gains and hand victory to the Taliban.
But President Obama is not so much interested in winning the war in Afghanistan, as he is in getting out of a conflict with no end in sight. The primary objective of America's involvement in that region - to capture or kill the 9/11 mastermind Bin Laden, and to stop Afghanistan from being used as a base from which to export terrorism - has been achieved. Bin Laden is dead, and Al Qaeda is no longer a major presence in Afghanistan.
Nation building, well, that's for the Afghans to achieve for themselves. Unfortunately, with a government racked by corruption, and an inability to train security forces able to counter the Taliban, the prospects for success in that endeavor seem slim. Voicing that reality, however, is a dangerous thing to do for anyone wanting to keep their job under an Obama Administration.
Generals or government officials who have informed the President that the Afghans are simply not ready to go it alone, have been moved on to other jobs, or fired.
General Stanley McChrystal, who was revealed in a Rolling Stone article to have contempt for the President's handling of the war, was called to Washington for a public dressing down, and then removed from his post.
General Jim Jones, Obama's first National Security Advisor who argued for a troop increase, was fired. Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, disagreed with the President on a number of points, and was fired. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has been retired, and replaced with a political operative, Leon Panetta. And as mentioned, General David Petreaous, the hero who turned the Iraq war around with his counter insurgency strategy, and would best be utilized remaining in the theatre of battle in Afghanistan, will instead be in Washington DC sitting behind a desk as the Director of the CIA.
Obama has effectively purged his government of the anti-withdrawal voices, save one: Hillary Rodham Clinton. As Secretary of State, it was she who argued forcefully for the 30,000 troop surge in 2009, the very troops that Obama is now taking away. Should Obama be re-elected in 2012, it remains to be seen whether Hillary will stay on at the State Department. (There is widespread talk that she will be moved to the World Bank).
America and her allies must get out of Afghanistan; the question is, should that exit begin now? There is suspicion - justified in my view - that Obama's withdrawal is tied not to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, but rather to America's political cycle. 2012 - the date of the first major withdrawal of forces, is a Presidential election year.
Obama can say that he is winding down the war, while the bulk of the troops remain. In effect, he can have it both ways. 2014, the date set for total withdrawal, is also an election year - this time for the Congress. Obama is playing politics with a military issue, and at stake is the fate of an entire nation and its people.
What is the future of Afghanistan from here? Is it our concern? Does the sacrifice of so many Americans, Australians and others necessitate staying on the job until the job is done? Or is Obama making the right decision to pull out sooner rather than later? Only time will tell. But what is clear is that Obama's decisions to purge his government of anti-withdrawal voices and exit Afghanistan are some of the most momentous of his entire presidency, and the resulting success or failure of his decisions, will impact not only the nation of Afghanistan, but his standing in history.