President Obama's decision to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan seems to have ignored a key factor that may mess up his plans.


I refer to the way in which Afghans, Pakistanis, our NATO allies and, indeed, Americans will perceive the president's decision. In Afghanistan, shifting perceptions can be as important as the numbers of troops.

The president claimed the faster drawdown was the result of U.S. successes: in killing Osama bin Laden, knocking out many other al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, and pushing back the Taliban in the Afghan south.

But -- for reasons I'll detail -- many players in the Afghan drama will believe the decision was propelled by political weakness. That perception could make it harder -- and much more dangerous -- to reduce troop levels during the coming three years.

Why so? The U.S. troop "surge" 18 months ago was rooted as much in psychology as in military needs. The goal was to reverse the Taliban's momentum. That meant changing the widespread perception -- among ordinary Afghans as well as militants -- that the Taliban was inevitably destined to win.

The U.S. troop "surge" was also supposed to buy time to train Afghan security forces to protect their own country before the scheduled NATO departure date in 2014. And it was aimed at convincing some Taliban leaders that it was smarter to negotiate a role in governing the country than to fight on.

To some extent the momentum had indeed shifted. The Taliban had been pushed back from southern Afghanistan.

But Obama's decision to front-load the pullback of U.S. troops may toss crucial psychological gains away.

No matter what the White House says, the president's plan to pull all 33,000 "surge" troops by summer 2012 will be seen as politically driven. It makes no sense, otherwise, to bring them home in the middle of the 2012 fighting season. This will resurrect the image in Afghanistan and Pakistan of a United States that is hurrying to leave, no matter the consequences.

If Afghans think we are rushing home, villagers are more likely to give in to Taliban pressure. In eastern Afghanistan, virulent Pakistani jihadi groups, linked to al-Qaida and pledged to attack the West, have already been setting up new havens.

And why should the Taliban be interested in negotiations if the military pressure is decreasing, giving militants a psychological boost? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said talks with the Afghan Taliban are "necessary," but the Taliban are now likely to make tougher demands.

The shifting psychological climate will no doubt also affect our most difficult ally, Pakistan. The Pakistanis have been trying to decide whether to facilitate talks between the United States and their onetime Taliban allies; they may now want to hold on to their Taliban card if the militants seem likely to retake power in Kabul.

But the group whose psychology may be affected most dramatically is here at home. Obama gave such an overly rosy portrait of the situation in Afghanistan that Americans may demand the troops be brought home even faster.

What the president should have explained is that much remains to be done before 2014 to cement the past year's gains and ensure Afghanistan doesn't relapse into a jihadi haven. Instead -- pushed by Republicans and Democrats alike -- he gave a psychological lift to Afghan militants who were hurting.

In the Afghan war of psychology, our side just took a hit.