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06.23.11

The Politics Behind Obama’s Decision

The speech shows the president is feeling the political pressure of Americans’ hostility to the conflict—enough to signal the U.S. is preparing to pull out. That will cause other players like Pakistan and Hamid Karzai to make adjustments we may not like, writes John Barry.

Almost 40 years ago, a Democrat campaigned for the presidency with the message: “Come home, America.” George McGovern was an unassailable war hero:  a World War II bomber pilot who had unaccountably survived 35 missions over Germany. The 1972 election was fought in the shadow of Vietnam, a bloody war Americans had despaired of winning. Even so, McGovern was crushed by Richard Nixon, who rejected withdrawal as unworthy of a great nation and promised nothing less than peace with honor.  

How times change. Foreign policy scholars and students of the presidency will surely come to see President Obama’s address last evening as a minor classic of its kind. Notionally, the speech was merely to announce how many U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. Obama’s real message was more visceral: “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”  

Afghanistan is a 10-year war, in which America has expended the lives of 1,600 of its young—with close to 12,000 wounded, many of them grievously—while persuading 47 other nations that the struggle there was important enough to warrant their hazarding the lives of their young, too. Now, Obama’s address tells the world an America beset by budget woes has tired of this faraway struggle.

Obama’s address, of course, reflected the political pressure of a growing hostility to the war. The fine print of the schedule he gave for withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops showed how acutely he feels that:  10,000 out this year, another 23,000 out, he said, “by next summer.”   But the White House background briefings before his speech talked of those 23,000 being pulled out in the fall. The disparity in timing seems minor but is crucial. Combat in Afghanistan is seasonal.   Winter snows block the passes through which the Taliban and their allies come into Afghanistan from their refuges in Pakistan. Spring brings a new infiltration. Summer is the fighting season.

So will those 23,000 troops be there for next year’s fighting season?   Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus urged that in the debate in the White House over the past week. Both accepted that Obama faced a political imperative, in this pre-election year, to announce a sizable pullout of U.S. troops. Their goals were twofold.  One was to limit the pullout to the 33,000 Obama had agreed to in the December 2009 surge into Afghanistan. The other was that any pullout should be phased in to keep troops in Afghanistan through next year’s fighting season. Some in the White House were urging a faster drawdown: as many as 15,000 this year, while Vice President Joe Biden, who had always argued against the surge, was reliably reported to want to pull out all 33,000 within a year.

Obama’s address tells the world an America beset by budget woes has tired of this faraway struggle.

Only a couple of days ago, whispers in the Pentagon were that Gates and Petraeus believed they had won both arguments. The drawdown would be modest this year, and next year would come only after the summer fighting season. Obama’s address suggests that Gates and Petraeus won the case for a modest drawdown this year, but at the price of losing their preferred schedule for next year. Obama’s decision appears to reflect Biden’s policy preference.

Gates seems to have foreseen that Obama would ultimately feel driven to a starker decision than Gates wanted. “The drawdown must be politically credible here at home,” he said on one of last weekend’s talk shows. He also hinted he might not agree with the decision: “We can do anything the president tells us to do. The question is whether it’s wise,” he said. (Gates has now issued a statement saying he supports Obama’s decisions.)

Why is the withdrawal schedule so critical? The answer is that the surge finally gave U.S. commanders the number of troops they needed, over the past year, to drive the Taliban out of their heartland in southern Afghanistan. Their success was what enabled Obama to say so confidently last evening: “We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength.” But the task is only half-complete. The goal for this summer and next is to expand the U.S. grip on that territory while also building up in the east to interdict Taliban allies coming over from north Waziristan on route to cause mayhem in the Afghan capital, Kabul.To handle both at once, the U.S. commanders had been counting on the margin of troops that the surge gave them.

Perhaps the precise schedule of U.S. troop withdrawals next year will be fudged nearer the date. Or the deployments of the sizable U.S. force, close to 70,000, that will remain can be juggled to give the commanders what they need in the critical battlegrounds of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

What’s certain is that Obama’s speech will be taken internationally as proof that America really is preparing to pull out. Obama has opened the door on a new power struggle: who will control Afghanistan after America leaves?  All the other players in this complex struggle—the allies in the coalition, the embattled government of President Hamid Karzai, the Taliban and their allies, the other tribes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, even Iran–will adjust their policies accordingly. We will likely not welcome the adjustments they will make.