US Mood Shifts on Afghanistan

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US Mood Shifts on Afghanistan

The US is set to announce details of the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan next week. Balancing the generals and growing antiwar sentiment isn’t easy.

US President Barack Obama will order the withdrawal of at least 15,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the start of a steady drawdown of US forces before handing security over to the Afghan army and police, according to several White House and military officials and analysts in Washington.

Like his decision in December, 2009, to add 30,000 troops while pledging to start a withdrawal in July, 2011, Obama’s decision splits the difference between his generals, who prefer a slower pullout, and increasingly vocal opponents of the war. While those opponents are concentrated among the president’s own base in the Democratic Party and among independents, a growing number of Republicans – including several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 – have also begun to call for a stepped-up withdrawal.

But it’s unclear if Obama’s decision to reduce the US commitment by 15,000 troops in 2011 will be enough to placate his restive base, especially among hard-core, liberal Democratic voters who the president needs to turn out in large numbers next year. Polls show that the American people have turned strongly against the war. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News, conducted before the death of Osama bin Laden,  revealed that by a margin of 64 to 31 percent, Americans no longer believe that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. By a margin of 73-21 percent, Americans favour a substantial withdrawal of US troops in July.Driving public opinion is a combination of sheer war-weariness after a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the belief that with bin Laden’s death the United States has accomplished its chief goal in going to war in the first place, and concerns about the staggering, $120 billion cost of the war this year.

Last week, at a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Maj. Gen. Frederick Hodges provided a glimpse of the administration’s current thinking about the war. ‘Sometime next week, President Obama will announce the beginning of the drawdown of the “West Point surge,” and Gen. Petraeus is back in Washington working with Defence Secretary Gates and (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Adm. Michael Mullen, and over the next few days they will meet with the president to discuss what the drawdown slope should be,’ he said. ‘Some in Washington have called for a withdrawal of 15,000 US troops by the end of 2011, while Secretary Gates has said the number should be more modest. I suspect the final number will be somewhere in that ballpark. Everyone is in agreement that we don’t want to put the gains of the past year-and-a-half at risk.’ Recently, in an interview, Gen. Douglas Lute, the president’s chief adviser on Afghanistan, said that it’s likely that the full complement of the surge, about 30,000 troops, will be withdrawn by 2012.

If that’s the president’s decision, he’s gambling that it’s enough to calm the growing antiwar mood in the country. Across the board, members of Congress from both parties have started to speak out more forcefully against the war. This week, a bipartisan group of 27 senators wrote to Obama in support of a plan to inaugurate a complete US pullout. ‘Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops,’ the senators wrote. ‘The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits. It is time for the United States to shift course in Afghanistan.’ Senior senators, such as Michigan’s Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, have described the war as unsustainable.

‘While the US has genuine national security interests in Afghanistan, our current commitment, in troops and dollars, is neither proportional to our interests nor sustainable,’ said Kerry, whose voice carries great weight with the White House. Kerry spoke at the confirmation hearing for Ryan Crocker, the new US ambassador to Afghanistan, and the Democratic members of Kerry’s committee issued a blistering report arguing that much, if not all, of the billions of dollars in US aid to Afghanistan since 2001 has been wasted and even counterproductive.

For the first time since the start of the war, its cost has become a major battleground. Because the fighting on the ground has at most produced a stalemate, with the Taliban and other insurgents decamping across the border to Pakistan when the pressure grows intense, more and more people in Washington are asking whether the United States can afford to spend $10 billion a month to maintain a stalemate. Instead, support is growing for a political solution involving talks with the Taliban and its allies. ‘Money is the new 800-pound gorilla. It shifts the debate from “Is the strategy working?” to “Can we afford this?” And when you view it that way, the scope of the mission that we have now is far, far less defensible,’ an Obama administration official told the Washington Post last month.

If the president springs a surprise by announcing a faster pullout than expected, it might be because the White House no longer fears that the Republicans will ambush him with accusations of appeasement and surrender. In fits and starts, the GOP is beginning to evince a significant tilt against the war. Nearly all of the likely and declared Republican candidates for president have expressed, to one degree or another, a desire to wind down the war – and, more importantly, none of them have criticized the president for starting a pullout.

Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China who will declare his intent to run next week, suggested that the war is no longer in US interests. ‘When you look at Afghanistan, can we hang out until 2014 and beyond? You can, if you're willing to pay another quarter of a trillion dollars to do so,’ he said. ‘If it isn't in our direct national security interest, and if there isn't a logical exit strategy and if we don't know what the cost is going to be in terms of money and human lives, then I think you have to say it's probably time we re-evaluate this. My hunch is the American people want to be out of there as quickly as we can get it done.’

Similarly, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the presumed front-runner in the race for the GOP nod, said during a debate in New Hampshire with six Republican rivals that it’s Afghanistan’s responsibility, not the United States’, to win the war. ‘It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can,’ he said. ‘I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.’ Even Newt Gingrich, a bombastic former speaker of the US House of Representatives, agreed. ‘I think that we need to think fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region,’ he said ‘I think that we should say to the generals we would like to figure out how to get out as rapidly as possible with the safety of the troops involved.’

Similar comments have been expressed by leading Republicans in Congress, too, including Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the foreign relations committee, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, the second-ranking Republican. ‘We've got this huge nation-building effort under way (and) I think if our citizens saw our footprint in Afghanistan, saw what was happening there from the standpoint of all the things we're investing in this country, the distortions in its culture—we've got to change our footprint,’ Corker said. Such comments stand in sharp contrast to Republican charges in 2009 that Obama’s decision to start a withdrawal in 2011 was a grave error. Whatever their motives now – and, according to analysts, Republicans are responding to polls and war-weariness among their own constituents, too – the shift in tone inside the GOP makes it much easier for Obama to accelerate a withdrawal without undue concern over the domestic political consequences.

In the House of Representatives, where there’s a strong caucus of Democrats against the war, members stunned the White House at the end of May when a near-majority of the House voted to demand a timetable for ending the war. On May 26, in a vote so close that it surprised even its organizers, the House narrowly rejected by a vote of 215-204 an amendment sponsored by Representatives Jim McGovern (D.-Mass.) and Justin Amash (R.-Mich.) to require the Pentagon to present a plan for the ‘accelerated transition of military operations to Afghan authorities.’ It was considered especially significant that Rep. Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.), the minority whip and a noted hawk, spoke on the House floor in favour of the McGovern-Amash amendment.

Last year, a similar measure garnered only 162 votes. This time, all but eight Democrats voted for it, along with 26 Republicans. ‘I think this is a very, very strong vote, much stronger, quite frankly, than I thought we were going to get,’ McGovern said afterwards. McGovern’s measure, which didn’t specify a deadline or specific numbers, was written in order to attract the support of more cautious Democrats and to allow the maximum number of GOP members to vote yes, and it signalled that the next time around it might actually pass, especially if conservative organizations and Tea Party groups that are increasingly expressing unhappiness about ‘Obama’s war’ mobilize support. ‘This was a close vote, and if some of the conservative groups organized around it, there’s no doubt that we could pick up enough votes to pass it,’ says Paul Kawika Martin, a lobbyist for Peace Action, an antiwar group that supported the effort.

There are also rumblings in the House in support of the creation of an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group modelled on the Iraq Study Group, led in 2006 by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, which called for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq over 18 months. Like the Iraq Study Group, the proposed Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group is backed by Rep. Frank Wolf, a conservative Republican from Virginia.

While Obama is juggling the political consequences of a withdrawal at home and diplomatic efforts to seek a political solution to the conflict, his advisers believe that the United States has a strong interest in reducing its involvement in wars in the Middle East and South Asia so that it can turn its attention in the foreign policy arena to China, India, and the Pacific. ‘We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last 10 years,’ Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, told The New Yorker. ‘And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.’

In the same vein, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told the magazine: ‘The project of the last two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy of issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against al-Qaeda…If you were to boil it all down…It’s “Wind down these two wars, re-establish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia (to) the global economy.”’

Now, if the generals who resisted Obama’s inclination in 2009 to avoid escalating the war can be contained, the president can get started on those broader priorities.