Let’s be clear: Flying abruptly to Kabul to announce that the end “is now within our reach” against a backdrop of military vehicles on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death is nothing like landing on a carrier bearing a “Mission Accomplished” banner to say you’ve whupped the Iraqis.
Or is it? As President Obama’s top aides were at pains to stress, there were compelling strategic reasons for him to go to Afghanistan that had nothing to do with 2012 politics. The two nations had recently finished 20 hard months of negotiations over long-term strategic partnership that Republicans and Democrats alike agree is necessary. Both Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had wanted to ink the accord in Kabul before the NATO summit in late May. It was also somehow “resonant,” as one Obama aide said, that such an accord should be announced and signed on the same day that the man responsible for America’s involvement in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, had died. “The [9/11] attacks began our involvement in Afghanistan … the war we are seeking to end responsibly today,” said a senior administration official. “It was always the president’s intention to spend this anniversary with our troops.”
But it is also appropriate, perhaps, to compare Obama’s surprise trip to George W. Bush’s notorious—and embarrassingly premature—political stunt in 2003. Because Obama himself, in his speech Tuesday night, seemed to want to remind Americans of that earlier moment, and more broadly of his predecessor’s failed effort at war, as a way of contrasting his own putative success at it.
Bush’s carrier landing is mainly remembered today not because it was viewed as political exploitation, but because of how wrong the 43rd president turned out to be about his assessment of success. The mission wasn’t even close to accomplished, as Obama suggested in his speech. “In 2002, bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe havens in Pakistan. America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq,” Obama said. Then he added:“But over the last three years, the tide has turned.” (Read: since I came into office.) “We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan Security Forces. We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set – to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild – is within reach.”
Obama has spent most of the last three years reminding Americans that Bush left him with a titanic cleanup job, both of America’s badly misconceived wars and of a badly run economy. It is a habit that has begun to grate on many voters. But in this instance he may have a point. Obama does appear to be at least in reach of completing the task that the horrors of 9/11 set in motion so long ago. He has withdrawn from Iraq, is planning to do so in Afghanistan, while at the same time knocking off or capturing the worst culprits responsible for 9/11.
As the president himself acknowledged, the conflict may never be completely over. The new agreement with Karzai makes clear that U.S. funds and U.S. trainers and counter-terrorism forces will be deployed in Afghanistan for at least another decade to come. And many experts on the ground say the readiness of Afghan forces has been overestimated, just as the corruption of Karzai’s government and its lack of support inside the country tend to be underestimated.
But Obama’s closing peroration may still be one of his best campaign lines in 2012: “My fellow Americans, we have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
It’s not “Mission Accomplished,” not yet. But it’s not bad. And it may help him to get re-elected.