Why Obama Went to Afghanistan

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Afghanistan last week was widely dismissed for being driven solely by election year politics. This view is mistaken. Although there was a political element to the trip, its overriding purpose was to revive peace talks with the Taliban.

The belief that the trip was politically motivated is based on its coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, which the Obama campaign has been making a centerpiece of their reelection pitch. Obama undoubtedly realized that delivering a prime time speech from Bagram Air Base would feed into this narrative. At the same time, he was under no illusions that this would translate into many votes come November.

In fact, the president’s trip was more of a political liability. To begin with, whatever time a president spends abroad during an election year is time he doesn’t spend attending fundraisers or holding campaign rallies. Furthermore, Obama went to Afghanistan to reaffirm his commitment to a war that is now more unpopular among voters than the Iraq War was at its lowest point. Two-thirds of Americans say the war hasn’t been worth fighting. Of the 30 percent of Americans that still support the war, just one-fourth are Democrats, while nearly half are Republicans. To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, any political strategist who thinks this is a winning strategy for the president’s reelection ought to have their head examined.

On the other hand, the timing and substance of the trip had compelling strategic rationales. Since the U.S. first step foot inside Afghanistan in October 2001, every regional actor has acted on the assumption that Washington would be gone soon after it found bin Laden and his compatriots. Obama therefore sent a powerful message to the region when he arrived in Afghanistan exactly a year after the death of bin Laden to sign a strategic pact that, at least in theory,commits the U.S. to Afghanistan’s future through 2024. Rest assured, everyone in the region – from the Karzai government, Russia, and India, to Pakistan and the Taliban – stood up and took notice.

More concretely, Obama’s trip sought to force the Taliban to return to negotiations. With NATO’s 2014 withdrawal fast approaching, and the Karzai government showing no signs of improvement, the Taliban have increasingly resigned themselves to waiting out the Western forces, at which point they believe they can easily retake the country by force.

This is evident from, among other things, their change in tactics. In recent years, the Taliban have gone from waging a full-scale insurgency to focusing their efforts on carrying out high-profile attacks on Afghan government and NATO targets. These attacks further the Taliban’s objectives in two ways.

First, they demonstrate to the Afghan people that the Karzai government is incapable of protecting its supporters. As one Afghan MP exclaimed after the Taliban’s latest assault on the Parliamentary building: “Parliament is the house of all Afghans. If we can’t defend Parliament then we can’t defend anyone.” These high-profile attacks also result in fewer civilian casualties, which risk turning the Afghan people against the group.

High-profile attacks also receive extensive Western media coverage, which reduces support for the war at home. By fostering greater domestic opposition in the midst of an election year, the Taliban are undoubtedly hoping to pressure Obama into accelerating the troop drawdown. From the Taliban’s vantage point, this strategy is paying dividends as voters’ support for the Afghan War has declined markedly over the last year and a half. Accordingly, the Taliban see less and less reason to negotiate.  

What the insurgents don’t understand is how detached Americans are from a war that only one percent of them are fighting. Especially at a time when most Americans are concerned about the economy, Obama faces no real political pressure to end to the war. This was the message he hoped to convey to the Taliban by traveling to Afghanistan unannounced and casually informing the American people he had committed them to Afghanistan for another decade.

The Taliban are fond of reminding NATO: “You have the watches. We have the time.” By this they mean that no matter what deadline the West sets for withdrawal, they’ll be in Afghanistan after it passes. By resetting his watch while simultaneously reiterating the offer to negotiate, President Obama hopes the Taliban’s patience will run out.

Zachary Keck is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.

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