This article originally appeared at The Nation on April 26, 2011.
The president is on the cusp of a decision which will define his presidency and re-election chances in 2012: whether to risk multiple military quagmires or campaign on a decisive pledge to pull American troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan and drones out of Pakistan and Libya.
Centrist that he is, President Obama may gamble on a promise to “stay the course.” Sound familiar? All that is known is that the decisions will come quickly.
On Afghanistan, Obama told the Associated Press last Friday that his coming July announcement of troop withdrawals would be “significant…not a token gesture.”
Though the president offered no specific numbers, the phrasing was an important signal, delivered in White House–speak. According to Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, the internal debate between the White House and Pentagon over Afghanistan has been intense. When the president announced in a December 2009 West Point speech that he was sending 30-33,000 more American troops in a military surge to Afghanistan, it appeared that the Pentagon and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had won the argument. But Obama slipped a hedge into the West Point speech pledging that he would “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011.”
What did it mean to “begin” a transfer? When would it end? Would it be based on conditions on the ground, as demanded by the military, or a firm deadline, which Obama expected would come from the Hill? Peace groups, opposed to Obama’s troop surge of 33,000, weren’t impressed by vague talk of simply beginning something that had no end. The cynicism deepened when Obama announced in November 2010 that American combat operations would end by 2014, and that counterterrorism capabilities would remain beyond that date.
Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, have publicly advocated the most minimal version of an initial withdrawal. In a recent speech to NATO recently, Gates chastised the Europeans for “too much talk about exit and not enough about continuing the fight.” He added that “we will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture.” Woodward’s book quoted Petraeus saying “I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting.”
Obama’s concern was being dragged into an unpopular, unaffordable quagmire by generals with competing agendas. As Woodward quoted him, “I can’t lose all the Democratic Party.”
But that is what’s happened. Peace sentiment, expressed openly in the streets during the Bush years, became a silent but expanding presence inside the Democratic Party as Obama escalated the war. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans, including 86 percent of Democratic voters, favor speeding up the withdrawal of American troops.
In February, the Barbara Lee, the sole Congressional opponent of the open-ended authorization to go to war a decade ago, found herself in the mainstream of her party in opposing Afghanistan. Lee submitted a resolution to the Democratic National Committee calling on Obama to announce a “significant” and “substantial” withdrawal by July, a rapid pullout over the next two years and the transfer of the savings to job creation at home.
Since Obama is the leader of the DNC, all resolutions are vetted by the White House. At first, the Lee language was rejected by the staffers who monitor the doings of the party. Then something happened. White House objections disappeared. Centrist party leaders like Donna Brazille and Alice Germond signed on as co-authors of the Lee resolution, which passed without dissent.
Was the White House sending a signal that a strong peace statement from the party would be useful political cover? No one knows. Then came last week’s announcement by Obama echoing the DNC resolution’s call for a swift, sizeable and significant reduction.
So what would those terms mean in raw numbers? At the low end of “significant,” Obama could announce a withdrawal of 33,000 beginning in July and carrying through 2012, enabling him to claim he ended the surge he promised his military. That still would leave many Americans in confusion, wondering how a 2009 level of US combat would mean a step towards peace.
A more robust definition of “significant” would be a decrease of 32,000 troops by October of this year, followed by another decrease of 35,000 by July 2012, a reduction of more than half of America’s forces through the 2012 presidential campaign. These numbers are proposed by national security experts at the Washington, DC–based Afghanistan Study Group. The ASG estimates $60-80 billion in savings to American taxpayers per year.
That still would leave some 30,000 Americans in Afghanistan through 2014 focused on training Afghan troops, checking the expansion of Taliban control and engaging in counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda cells. In 2014, an Afghanistan election will choose a successor to Hamid Karzai. The US secret war in Pakistan would continue on its own dynamic. Politically, the total numbers of American troops, dead and wounded, might plummet, winning the approval of Americans at home.
In Iraq, Obama made a surprising commitment to withdraw all American troops by December of this year, a pledge that has been derided by military commanders and national security insiders. The game, it is suggested, is to induce the Baghdad government to “invite” the United States to stay past the December deadline. Obama remains a sphinx as to his ultimate intentions, but a serious obstacle to delaying the withdrawal is posed by Moktada al-Sadr, with a powerful bloc in the Iraqi parliament, armed militias in the wings and supporters in Iran possessing great influence. On the other side, Saudi Arabia is strongly opposed to a US total withdrawal, which would leave Iraq in the Shiite orbit dominated by Iran.
Sadly, American public opinion is shaped by American casualties, which means the peace movement has little influence over Obama’s decision concerning Iraq. Peace sentiment was highest in the years 2003–07, when 3,899 American soldiers were being killed and 28,890 wounded in Iraq. Since then the death toll has dropped from 903 in 2007, to 313 in 2008, to 148 in 2009, sixty in 2010, and fourteen as of early this April. The American public has zero interest in Iraq, although that might change if Obama’s leaves a small contingent of US troops in the midst of sectarian violence in violation of his previous pledge.
In Pakistan, Obama is waging an increasingly chaotic war using Predator drones and large numbers of CIA and Special Forces. The diplomatic solution would be a cease-fire in Afghanistan and all-party talks including power-sharing with Pakistan’s allies, the Taliban and other insurgent networks. This course seems to be supported by the Karzai government in Kabul and by a few in the US administration, but the agenda of the Pentagon seems to be imposing a settlement by military force. Nothing, even the escape of 400-500 Taliban prisoners from a jail in US-occupied Kandahar province this week, will force the Pentagon to retreat. Only a commander-in-chief can do that, and the Pentagon is betting that Obama won’t be willing.
In Libya, the situation remains murky, but there are two possibilities. First, Obama can follow the advice of those like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who tried to defeat him in 2008, and slide down the rabbit hole into another war. Obama could get lucky if the Qaddafi regime suddenly collapses, although the following occupation would be expensive and explosive. Or, like other unpopular dictators, Qaddafi might get lucky and draw the Western powers into a stalemated quagmire and negotiated settlement, endangering Obama’s re-election. At the moment, Obama is gambling that several more weeks of pressure will cause Qaddafi’s implosion, allowing the president to declare his first military “victory,” despite the fact that the American coalition in the Long War against “terrorism” is falling apart. One month ago, for example, Qaddafi’s Libya was celebrated officially as a pillar of the “war on terror,” as were Egypt and Yemen.
There is a great danger that the Obama administration will be knee-deep in the Big Muddy by next year, as Pete Seeger used to phrase it. The chance to campaign in 2012 on a platform of ending two trillion-dollar wars at a time of economic recession should be attractive, especially to a president who has lost his liberal base. But cutting compromises with the Pentagon and Republicans may leave Obama right where his opposition wants him, floundering in the center of quagmires he has created.
Read also Katrina vanden Heuvel's colum in the Washington Post, Why Afghanistan Could Upend Obama's Reelection Strategy.