Obama Nears Key Decisions on Afghan Strategy

Obama Nears Key Decisions on Afghan Strategy

Obama Nears Key Decisions on Afghan Strategy

President Obama is on the verge of deciding how many troops to pull out of Afghanistan starting this July—and whether he’ll pull them all out by December. His second term rests on his getting the US out of the war.


The Obama administration is on the verge of decisions that will permanently define the Afghanistan and Iraq wars through the 2012 election.

Obama will decide, first, how many US troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan starting this July and running through 2012 and, second, whether to comply with the current plan to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by this December, or leave troops and bases behind.

At stake politically is whether the president will choose to campaign through 2012 on a platform of ending two quagmires costing trillions of tax dollars and thousands of lives, or whether he will portray himself as staying the course in the “war on terrorism,” building on the death of Osama bin Laden.

Once these decisions are made in the weeks ahead, there are likely to be no further changes in US policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq until 2013, unless unexpected events intervene. The electoral cycle will be in full gear, and politicians are unlikely to change their rhetoric under voter and media scrutiny.

Many progressive activists may feel powerless in this situation, when large-scale peace demonstrations are unlikely and Congressional opposition is limited. Unlike in labor or civil rights politics, there is no large-scale Peace Lobby to bargain with the White House. But the very decentralized and amorphous nature of peace sentiment means that Obama will have to constantly address the feelings and criticisms of millions of voters unhappy with the slow pace of military withdrawals in the context of economic crisis. Polls consistently show that 75–85 percent of Democratic voters, and a smaller majority of independents, want a more rapid withdrawal than currently planned.

Peace voters will want to hear a clear message: that Obama intends to phase out of two wars and transfer billions to our needs at home. Absent that message, Obama risks a serious falloff in 2012 support, votes, door-knocking and grassroots mobilization.

Here are some important developments in this fast-moving situation:

First, important elements of Obama’s base are lining up to support a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) passed a resolution in late February supporting significant and substantial troop reductions. Obama himself used almost identical language in an interview with the Associated Press on April 15. Shortly after, MoveOn, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and the Campaign for America’s Future launched petition drives. The liberal coalition Win Without War activated its e-mails. The substantive policy work was completed last December when the Campaign for American Progress (CAP), originally supportive of the Afghanistan escalation, switched to a phaseout proposal blandly titled “Realignment: Managing a Stable Transition to Afghan Responsibility.”  

The new sentiment for change also came from Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, chair and co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While opposing a “precipitous withdrawal” (whatever that means), they called it unsustainable to spend $10 billion per month on the military occupation.

True to their continuous resistance to White House policy, the American military pushed back this week with a token proposal to withdraw only 10,000 troops this year, and an official April 13 Pentagon report to Congress laid out a long-term nation-building/counterinsurgency plan that contemplates no significant troop withdrawals. The Pentagon report reflects the thinking of Gen. David Petraeus, who will become the new CIA director during a period of heightened drone wars. (For more discussion of how the Pentagon tries to manipulate and box in President Obama, see Bob Woodward’s excellent inside coverage in Obama’s Wars.) Worse, the House was poised on Wednesday to codify a war authorization, including detention without trial, justifying a permanent Long War against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces.”

If Obama chooses to side with the military’s proposal for a token 10,000 reduction, he is likely to disappoint everyone from the moderate-to-militant spectrum of the peace voting bloc.

Obama can choose a more significant number to attract more peace voters back into the fold, especially now that his commander-in-chief status is fortified. Here are his choices:

—Withdraw 32,000 troops between July 2011 and November 2012, effectively drawing down the “surge” forces he sent in 2009. Declaring the surge over might placate some voters and US allies, but would leave US forces exactly where they were before the surge began, with 70,000 US troops fighting an inconclusive war against the Taliban, with bin Laden no longer a factor. American deaths in Afghanistan will climb well past 1,500 under Obama, in a war whose apparent purpose is not to suffer damage to our military reputation or to prop up the unsalvageable Karzai regime.

—Take the advice of CAP and withdraw 60,000 US troops between now and 2012, leaving a force of 40,000, which would be reduced further to 10,000–15,000 by the next Afghanistan presidential election in 2014. CAP says the reserve force could be stationed “in the region," and be responsible for intelligence, training and targeted strikes against terrorist groups. If the Karzai government continues to flounder, CAP recommends an accelerated withdrawal.

—The Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), a branch of the New American Foundation, proposes a more rapid reduction of 32,000 by this October, effectively ending the surge, and another 35,000 by July 2012. Its proposal would save the US $60 billion to $80 billion per year and “reduce local resentment at our large and intrusive military presence.”

—To improve his peace image, Obama also needs to engage in, and not block, a conflict-resolution process involving talks with the Taliban and other insurgents, territorial compromise and power-sharing arrangements. Perhaps owing to Pentagon pressure, he has been slow to engage and faces the danger of reopening fractious divisions between the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara north and the Pashtun-Taliban south that have never been quelled by a decade of intervention. Now the proposed new war authorization could vastly complicate talks involving representatives of the Taliban and “associated forces” in Afghanistan.

Obama is likely to benefit politically only if he follows the advice of CAP, ASG and the Democratic National Committee, and links the troop withdrawals to savings for the domestic economy.

Even such significant reductions would leave tens of thousands of American troops mired in Afghanistan, but the dynamic of the so-called Long War would be disrupted and NATO forces would be supportive allies.  

Whether progressives like it or not, Obama no longer has to make concessions to his military over Afghanistan now that bin Laden is dead. Instead of compromising between choices of 10,000 troops and, say, 60,000, resulting in only 30,000, he can resume the posture of fighting terrorism through counterterrorism in Pakistan while claiming “victory” and pulling out of Afghanistan. He may add to his military credentials by forcing Qaddafi out of Libya and destroying the Al Qaeda cell in southern Yemen in the weeks ahead. Obama can balance those military strokes, if he wishes, by keeping his promise to withdraw all American forces from Iraq, another decision that must be made over Pentagon opposition.

Where might this leave the peace movement? In the best case now possible, public opinion and the Democratic rank-and-file will have begun to achieve the ending to two quagmires at savings of over $100 billion per year, and troop reductions of 100,000 from Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, more educating, organizing and resistance will be necessary to expose and derail the Long War policy, end the escalating drone wars, adapt constructively to the Arab revolutions and defend WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, who face trials, extradition and (in Manning’s case) a military tribunal for their alleged roles in exposing hidden truths about Afghanistan, Iraq and US foreign policy.

The Long War will require a long peace movement. To its proponents, like David Kilcullen, the Long War may continue another seventy years (that’s eighteen more presidential terms). Obama adviser Bruce Reidel summarizes the strategy in Woodward’s book: “we have to keep killing them until they stop killing us.” These hawks apparently don’t care about the effects at home of another seventy war years, which would decimate our domestic economy and draw curtains around our democracy.

But the momentum of the Long War can be broken, like a fever that runs its course, if the body is healthy enough. Along the way, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–what Kilcullen archly calls “small wars in the midst of a big one”–can be ended, freeing resources for the fight at home against the corporate and banking elites that have paid little or no taxes in support of the longest and costliest wars in American history.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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