Tag Archives: Obama Afghanistan Withdrawal

Obama In Afghanistan: To The Victor Goes the Spoils

After a surprise overnight trip, President Barack Obama delivered a nationwide address tonight from the Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan.  Speaking at 4 a.m. local time, Obama delivered a roughly 10-minute address touting the signing of a strategic agreement with Afghanistan that laid out a timetable for the U.S military withdrawal from that nation.  Predictably, critics tsked-tsked that the President’s decision to announce the agreement on the anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden threatened to politicize the conduct of foreign policy, and they were exactly right. But, in truth, no presidential action can be completely divorced from politics, and this is particularly the case in an election year, with the election slightly more than seven months away.  It would be more shocking if the President did not try to capitalize on what is likely the signature foreign policy accomplishment of his administration to date, particularly in light of the rather anemic GDP number announced three days before.  This was a Mission Accomplished reminder in which the Mission – at least in part – was really accomplished.

The language Obama used in the speech was particularly striking. According to the White House text, he said:

“And so, 10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us. Despite initial success, for a number of reasons, this war has taken longer than most anticipated. In 2002, bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped across the border and established safe haven in Pakistan. America spent nearly eight years fighting a different war in Iraq. And al Qaeda’s extremist allies within the Taliban have waged a brutal insurgency.

But over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al Qaeda’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 Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild — is now within our reach.”

This was both an indictment of the Bush administration for failing to kill Bin Laden, and a reminder that he – Obama – came closer to achieving the “goal that I set” – defeating al Qaeda – than did his predecessor.  It was a very effective way to personalize the killing of Bin Laden – one might say it was positively Bush-like.

It also served to take some attention away from the more important acknowledgment contained in the speech: that the U.S. would be involved in Afghanistan for years to come. Although largely symbolic and vague on details, the strategic agreement commits the U.S. to remaining in Afghanistan for another decade after the U.S. military forces are slated to be removed in 2014.   Although Obama touted the troop drawdown, the reality is that by the end of this term he will have more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan from what he inherited from Bush, and it remains unclear just how many troops will remain to train Afghan security forces and perform other security related tasks in the years to come.  In justifying the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of his presidency, Obama relied on the time-tested rhetorical trick of sandwiching his chosen policy between two extreme alternatives:

“As we move forward, some people will ask why we need a firm timeline. The answer is clear: Our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans want to assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.

Others will ask, why don’t we leave immediately? That answer is also clear: We must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise, our gains could be lost and al Qaeda could establish itself once more. And as Commander-in-Chief, I refuse to let that happen.”

Given the alternatives, which Obama defined as indefinite involvement or unilateral withdrawal, his policy option seems downright sensible.  Critics will contend, of course, that we have heard this type of rhetorical device used before – in Vietnam, for instance.  And it assumes that the phased withdrawal will not be disrupted by a deteriorating security situation.

The more important point to come out of tonight’s speech, however, is that while Obama wants, understandably, to focus on the troop drawdown, the reality is that he has acknowledged that we are once again – as we are in Iraq – back in the business of nation building.

P.S. I appreciate all the emails asking where I had disappeared to, but as I warned in a recent post, sometimes my day job takes over my life, and I hit a particularly busy patch during the past two weeks due to grading, teaching and research deadlines. I’ll try to resume a more normal blogging schedule for the immediate future.  Meanwhile, keep those comments coming.

The Grand Old President’s Afghan Strategy: He Marched Them Up The Hill…

How predictable was President Obama’s primetime announcement last Wednesday that the U.S. will begin drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, starting with a 10,000 troop reduction by the end of this year?  Last January, and again this past May, I tasked students in two different classes to simulate the decision process Obama would likely employ in deciding what steps to take in Afghanistan as the July draw-down date drew nigh.  In both classes, the student playing Obama, after listening to his “advisers” push a variety of policy options, ranging from an extended military commitment with a troop increase to a complete and immediate troop withdrawal, came to almost the same decision as did the real President.  In choosing to split the difference between his more “hawkish” and “dovish” advisers, of course, my students played Obama true to form; he is not one to adopt extreme measures from either side of the political spectrum.  Instead, Wednesday’s decision hewed closely to the strategy Obama outlined when he first announced the surge in December, 2009:  a limited U.S. escalation designed to buy time for Afghan forces so that they might develop the capacity to take over the nation’s security.  In announcing the phased troop withdrawal, Obama is gambling that his strategy has worked.  Only time will tell.

Equally predictably, both Republicans and Democrats voiced displeasure with Obama’s decision for a slow drawdown. Progressive Democrats are disappointed that Obama did not use Bin Laden’s death as a catalyst for accelerating the U.S. withdrawal timetable.  They point out that under Obama’s announced schedule, only 33,000 troops will be withdrawn by the end of next summer and U.S. military forces will remain in Afghanistan until 2014.  This means some 70,000 troops will still be in Afghanistan by this time next year – more than twice the 32,000 troops Obama inherited from Bush when he took office.  This is not the change for which Obama’s progressive supporters had hoped.

Neither did Obama’s decision sit well with his military advisers, who reportedly warned the President that the gains resulting from the recent troop surge are fragile, and easily reversed in the event of an American withdrawal.  The most strident criticism, however, came from Republicans who chastised Obama for ending the surge by the end of next summer, before the conclusion of the traditional “fighting season” which lasts another 3-4 months.  They openly wondered why Obama did not accept his generals’ advice to allow the “surge” to have its full impact by extending it until the end of 2012.

If the carping from the partisan extremes was predictable, so too was Obama’s decision to choose a strategy that largely ignored both.  By ending the surge early, in military terms, Obama will be able to cite the troop drawdown during the 2012 election campaign, rather than waiting until after the election as his military commanders advised. And that is the key to understanding the timing and substance of Obama’s announcement Wednesday night.  He is in the middle of an election campaign whose outcome will largely turn on independent voters. In an earlier post, I noted that the post-Bin Laden killing “bump” in Obama’s approval had, as predicted, almost entirely dissipated scarcely a month later.  But notice where Obama has lost the most crucial support, as revealed by this Gallup Poll taken from June 6-12:

Democrats remain strongly behind Obama, at levels close to what they were before Bin Laden was killed.  Republicans remain almost solidly against the President, although Obama is still polling 5% higher among them than before Bin Laden’s assassination. But among independents, Obama has dropped 5% from the post-Bin Laden high, back close to where he was before Bin Laden’s death.  As foreign policy recedes from the news, and the focus returns to the economy, support among independents is likely to weaken still more.  Clearly, if he is to win reelection, Obama must stem the erosion in support among this group.

Equally ominous, Obama’s support is the lowest among the two age groups who are most likely to vote in 2012.

Gallup shows that the post-Bin Laden “bump” has disappeared among voters aged 50 or more, although it lingers among those younger than 50.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s announcement of a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan will mollify this older cohort.  I suspect it will not, primarily because this group is largely focused on the economy, health care and entitlement reform.

At this point, some 17 months before standing for reelection, there was never much chance that Obama would use Bin Laden’s death to radically alter his Afghan strategy in the way progressives had hoped.  But neither was he likely to follow his military commanders’ advice to see the surge through to at least the end of next year’s fighting season. Purists will carp at this injection of election politics into military strategy, but the reality is that the two cannot be separated.  Presidents are not simply the commander in chief – they are elected officials as well, whose ability to achieve policy goals depends first and foremost on remaining in office.

In rejecting the advice from the partisan purists at both ends of the political spectrum,  Obama emulated the Grand Old Duke of York who faced a similar policy dilemma, and responded much as Obama did, as this traditional children’s nursery rhyme, slightly edited for modern sensibilities, makes clear:

“Oh, the Grand Old President

He had thirty thousand men;

He marched them off to Afghanistan

And he brought them home again

And when they were there, they were there,

And when they were home, they were home,

And when they were only half-way home,

They were neither here nor there.”

Let’s hope Humpty Dumpty is not next in the policy briefing book.