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Defense / politics

As Afghanistan Drawdown Approaches, Obama Faces New Political Landscape

Soldiers of the 502nd Infantry regiment 2nd Batallion, walk in the camp of Howz-e-Madad district near Kandahar city on November 23, 2010. The Pentagon admitted today in a report that progress has been 'uneven' in the war in Afghanistan, with only modest gains against the Taliban insurgency despite a surge of US and NATO troops. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)(MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
June 21, 2011

President Obama’s upcoming announcement about how many troops he'll begin withdrawing from Afghanistan next month will vividly underscore how much the war debate has shifted, inside and outside Washington, since Obama announced the Afghan surge in December 2009.

Obama will unveil his troop withdrawal decision on Wednesday, bringing an end to weeks of fevered speculation about the course of the deeply unpopular Afghan war. The president will address the country at 8 that night from the White House. A senior Pentagon official said in an interview on Tuesday that he expects the president to endorse a “phased withdrawal” that would bring one combat brigade, or about 5,000 troops, home over the summer and a second to begin leaving by the end of the year. He said that Obama will also commit to bringing back the remaining 20,000 "surge" troops by the end of 2012, although the military expects the president to be deliberately vague about the timing of the final stages of the troop drawdown, as he was in Iraq.

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Whatever path he chooses, Obama will confront a political landscape that has shifted significantly since he stood before an audience of cadets at West Point 18 months ago and said he had decided that it was in America’s “vital national interest” to send 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to battle the resurgent Taliban and stamp out any remaining Qaida militants there or in neighboring Pakistan.

At the time, both the military and the nation’s intelligence community agreed that Afghanistan was rapidly deteriorating and that the U.S. and its allies stood a realistic chance of defeat unless they rapidly changed course there. There were debates about what type of approach to put in place and precisely how many additional troops to deploy, but key policymakers from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department were in broad agreement that the U.S. needed to adopt a new strategy and dispatch considerable new resources to the country.

When Obama opted to deploy 30,000 new troops to the country in December 2009 as part of a shift to a broad counterinsurgency approach, he faced only minimal congressional opposition. Republicans in both the House and the Senate vocally endorsed the surge, while congressional Democrats—even as they made no secret of their discomfort with Obama’s escalation of the war—offered only minimal public criticism and made no real attempt to block the troop deployments.

This time around, the intelligence community and the military have completely different assessments of the state of the war and the impact of the surge. Senior military officials like Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, argue that the additional troops have helped rout the Taliban from their longtime strongholds in southern Afghanistan and speed the training of the Afghan security forces. Many in the intelligence community, by contrast, question the military’s relatively rosy assessments and believe that the U.S.-led offensives against the Taliban have done little to degrade the armed group’s willingness—or ability—to fight.

In March, for instance, Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers that the Taliban in southern Afghanistan had “shown resilience and still influences much of the population, particularly outside urban areas," despite the presence of tens of thousands of additional U.S. forces.

Burgess, echoing the private assessments of many CIA and DIA officials, said the military offensives against the Taliban had killed significant numbers of militants but resulted in “no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight.” Others in the intelligence community argue that the recent killing of Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden means tat the U.S. should reduce its costly military presence in Afghanistan and focus more narrowly on hunting down the terror group’s last living leaders.

The politics of the war have also become considerably more complicated for Obama. Democratic support for the war has evaporated in Congress, and an array of powerful Democrats have begun demanding that Obama bring the conflict to a close. Last week, 27 senators—including powerful figures such as Sens. Dick Durbinof Illionois, the Senate’s majority whip, and Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party’s 2012 Senate campaign operation—released a letter calling on Obama to begin a major troop withdrawal this summer. The letter’s signatories ran the gamut from conservative Democrats such as Montana’s Max Baucus to outspoken progressives such as Minnesota’s Al Franken, and from veterans with safe seats such as Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow to vulnerable freshmen such as Ohio’s Sherrod Brown.

In their letter, the senators didn’t specify how many troops should return home, but they stressed that the withdrawal should be “sizable and sustained” and include combat forces as well as logistical and support troops. The emphasis on combat personnel reflected the concern on Capitol Hill that Obama would bow to the Pentagon and order a minimal withdrawal composed mainly of troops who aren’t directly involved in the fight against the Taliban and its allies.

Republicans—who had long been almost universally hawkish about Afghanistan—are also beginning to turn against the war. Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky signed on to last week’s letter, and 26 House Republicans backed a Democratic amendment last month that would have mandated a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan. The measure attracted 204 votes, not enough to pass but far more than the 162 it received last year when the House was still under Democratic control.  

The shift has been particularly striking among the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination, who used a recent debate to signal unease about the length and cost of the Afghan war and to urge Obama to bring as many troops from home from Afghanistan this year as possible.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who formally entered the presidential race on Tuesday, told Esquire recently that the Afghan war was no longer in America’s long-term interests.

“Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it’s now or years from now, we’ll have an incendiary situation,” Huntsman told the magazine.  “Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don’t think that serves our strategic interests.”

Comments like Huntsman’s underscore Obama’s challenge on Wednesday. The administration clearly hopes that announcing firm plans to begin withdrawing troops will mollify critics of the Afghan war and prevent public support for the war from declining even further. But with Republicans joining Democrats in demanding a quick end to the long war, it may be too late for any troop withdrawal—no matter how big—to tamp down the public’s growing sense that the conflict is simply no longer worth fighting.

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