Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Leaving Afghanistan

There's something kind of refreshing about a president who throws caution to the wind the way Barack Obama does — in spite of indications that he's digging a deep hole for his party in next year's midterm elections.

Is "refreshing" the right word? Or should it be "foolhardy?"

The latest such indication is his apparent intention to discuss, in a televised address tonight, why he believes the best course in Afghanistan is to deploy more troops in the next six months — with the ultimate goal of ending involvement in three years.

I have never been enamored of war. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I was in favor of a war in Afghanistan back in 2001 — because that is where the September 11 attacks were hatched.

Public opinion and I were on the same page in those days. And we seem to be on the same page today. In 2009, that page favors ending our involvement in Afghanistan.

And lots of Americans think the troops should be withdrawn immediately. Even with the terrible economy that was the primary backdrop to last year's election, there were many voters for whom the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and running a smart, cost–efficient foreign policy were the #1 issues.

Afghanistan's been an afterthought for years. In the public's mind, it was moved to the back burner after the Taliban were routed and Iraq was invaded. The troops have staggered gamely along, with no mission, no objective and no exit strategy. It is high time we stopped pouring lives and resources into that black hole.

Even so, I understand something that many Americans, impatient to save money and lives, do not appear to understand. Our long–term interests require that a war must be ended gradually. It cannot be concluded abruptly, especially in a place like Afghanistan, which needs far less instability than would be created by complete and immediate withdrawal for an environment that would welcome the return of the Taliban to thrive.

Three more years, though, is quite a bit more gradual than I favored. And I wonder how Americans will feel about increasing the nation's human and financial commitments to an unproductive conflict that is more than 8 years old.

Ed Hornick of CNN writes that "comparisons to the war in Vietnam are often invoked," although he is quick to add that "experts say while there are similarities between the two conflicts, there are more differences."

That's true, but it also reminds me of Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats during the Vietnam era and their pious proclamations that they were spending more money and risking more lives so the money that had already been spent and the men who had already died would not have been sacrificed in vain.

And that is at the heart of the comparison.

I'm sure office–holding Democrats who must seek re–election next year appreciate the distinction. "Vietnam" has become a euphemism for "military misadventure" the same way that any scandal is now referred to as "[choose a clever and appropriate substitute word]–gate" and a mass killing has become a "Columbine" (it used to be called "going postal").

In fact, recently, I heard someone use "9/11" as a euphemism for a sneak attack.

Under the previous administration, Afghanistan quickly got the short end of the stick when attention shifted to invading Iraq. Whatever opportunity may have existed initially to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and bring him to justice evaporated, but American troops have remained to this day.

To a great extent, it has become the forgotten war, but not completely — the latest Gallup Poll says 55% of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of Afghanistan. That's quite a reversal. In July, Gallup was reporting that nearly the same number approved.

"The decline in Obama's approval rating on Afghanistan is evident among all party groups," writes Gallup's Jeffrey Jones, "with double–digit decreases since September among Republicans (17 points), independents (16 points), and Democrats (10 points)."

Will Obama's approach in Afghanistan benefit the members of his party next year? It's hard to see how. Gallup has been reporting that Republicans are leading Democrats on a generic 2010 ballot among registered voters. They have been making incremental gains all year.

How can they be hurt on this issue? Obama may be motivated by a desire to end the war, but isn't increasing the troop strength likely to be perceived as almost an endorsement of the previous administration's policy, even if it is short term? It might even be interpreted as political pandering.

It seems to me that a complete withdrawal, however messy it might leave things in Afghanistan, would be a more powerful repudiation of the previous administration in the eyes of the voting public.

It is worth remembering that politicians don't get to decide what voters use to evaluate candidates and parties. Historically, Americans are more influenced by pocketbook concerns than foreign affairs, even wars, unless the war in question is extremely popular or unpopular. And polls, while neither infallible nor written in stone, are suggesting that the domestic issue that has the voters' attention is unemployment. On that issue, the administration's "record" is largely an unverifiable number of jobs that have been "saved," not jobs that have been created.

John Crudele observes, in the New York Post, that "the employment situation just doesn't improve that much from one month to the next" — which means that, unless something truly dramatic happens, there simply isn't enough time for the kind of clear economic turnaround on which Democrats need to be able to capitalize.

Well, things may look different as we get closer to the midterm elections. Maybe the jobs summit will be wildly successful.

A lot of things could happen.

Will the president find the words to persuade a dubious public that further extending an already overextended military is the right strategy?

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