When he addresses the nation on Tuesday night, President Obama will argue that his retooled Afghan war strategy is beginning to show results and stress that his administration remains committed to beginning a gradual military withdrawal from the country later this year.
A senior White House official said Obama’s State of the Union address will focus heavily on domestic issues like job creation, reducing the soaring national debt, and his hopes of finding common ground with the new Republican majority in the House.
When it comes to Afghanistan, the official said Obama will use the address to argue that this year marks a turning point that signals the beginning off the end of the long Afghan war. The official said Obama would make clear that 2011 will be the high water mark for the U.S troop presence in Afghanistan, which will decline over the next three years and, at least in theory, be almost entirely out of the country by 2014.
Still, the speech comes at a difficult time for the administration’s Afghan policy. Polls show that public support for the conflict is clearly on the decline, and lawmakers from both parties are raising questions about whether the administration’s manpower-intensive counterinsurgency strategy is the right approach for the war.
That means Obama will need to find a way to persuade increasingly skeptical Americans that the war is worth fighting despite rising U.S. casualties and battlefield progress that has been at best mixed in the months since Obama's December 1, 2009 West Point speech announcing a surge of 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.
"Public support for the war in Afghanistan has waned considerably since Obama's West Point speech," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Obama was sober in that address; he needs to be considerably more sober now. That means acknowledging that despite the progress made, the war is still an uphill battle and neither the Karzai government nor the Pakistani government have lived up to expectations."
Some of the political challenges facing the White House as it works to maintain public backing for Afghanistan are the inevitable result of being in office during wartime, particularly during a grinding conflict that is already one of the longest wars in American history.
But the president also faces some challenges that are largely of his own making, most notably the hard question of finding the right way of speaking about the administration’s self-imposed July 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan.
The president’s decision last year to overrule his national security advisers and set that timetable created political pressures from both the right (which believes setting a fixed date for starting a drawdown emboldens the Taliban), and the left (which wants the White House to remove far more troops than it is likely to do) that might not have otherwise existed.
"He would be in a better place if he had never tried this straddle and if he had not hobbled his own plan with this artificial July 2011 deadline," said Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush administration and now teaches at Duke. "I realize Obama has an acute case of the customary presidential allergy against admitting one was wrong, but the war effort would be better served by some humble candor that focuses on explaining to Americans why the president believes we need to keep fighting after July 2011 and what he hopes to accomplish in that time."
In recent months, the White House has signaled that only a few thousand troops are likely to return home this year, and that the bulk of the 97,000 American troops currently in Afghanistan will remain there until 2014, which is when Afghan forces are scheduled to assume security responsibility for the entire country.
The administration and its top war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, believe the counterinsurgency strategy is showing results. American and NATO Special Operations Forces have killed hundreds of insurgent leaders in recent months, dealing significant blows to the Haqqani network – one of the most violent of Afghanistan’s insurgent groups – and the Afghan Taliban. U.S. forces have also pushed deep into the former Taliban strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.
At the same time, American commanders believe that lasting military success in Afghanistan will be impossible as long as militants can maintain their safe havens inside Pakistan’s lawless border areas. Violence is up sharply in many parts of the country, including formerly quiet areas of northern and western Afghanistan, and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is mired in corruption and deeply unpopular.
Military commanders acknowledge that 2011 will be a difficult year in Afghanistan, and that American casualties are certain to continue rising there. On Tuesday night, Obama will need to find a way of acknowledging that harsh reality – while persuading Americans that success is possible and the war remains worth fighting.
This article appears in the January 24, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.