Five-thousand, ten-thousand, or fifteen-thousand? That’s the question hanging in the air as Barack Obama prepares to clarify his withdrawal plan for Afghanistan this evening (or 0100 BST, if you’re minded to stay up). And it relates to how many of the 30,000 “surge” troops he will decide to release from the country this year. Washington’s money appears to be on 10,000, with half of them leaving this summer and half in December. But no-one outside of the President’s clique really yet knows. His final decision will say a fair amount about his intentions in Afghanistan, or at least about just how fast he wants to scram out of there.
What’s really striking, though, is the emphasis being placed on the bill for Afghanistan. If the human cost of the conflict created a yearning for withdrawal, then the dollar cost of the conflict now appears to be hastening that process. As today’s New York Times reports, Congress is reverberating to voices saying that the country just can’t afford the war, that the money should be sluiced into the faltering American economy instead. There are even going to be demonstrations by — I quote — “angry jobless citizens,” demanding that any savings from Afghanistan go towards nurturing jobs in the homeland. It is all part of an angry and indignant backdrop to Obama’s speech tonight.
From David Cameron’s perspective, all this probably hardens his resolve to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan by 2015. But might it have implications for Libya too? After all, in the past few days, the debate over our campaign against Gaddafi has quickly reduced into one about cost. Danny Alexander inflamed concern with his admission to Sky, at the weekend, that the bill could run into the “hundreds of £millions”.