This article originally appeared at The Nation on March 1, 2011.
The Democratic National Committee—whose leader, after all, is President Barack Obama—passed a resolution at last weekend’s Washington, DC, conference calling for an acceleration of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan more rapidly than the president’s current 2014 timeline. The policy resolution demands a “swift withdrawal” of troops and contractors starting with a “significant and sizeable reduction [of troops] no later than July 2011.”
The resolution may not be a game-changer, but it certainly changes the shape of the months ahead, when war funding and exit strategies are debated in Congress and Obama announces how many troops he will “begin” withdrawing this July.
The goal of Democrats like Rep. Barbara Lee is to “change the president’s political calculus” and encourage his running on a 2012 platform promise of ending two wars – instead of the specter of trillion-dollar quagmires. Gen. Petraeus and national security hawks like John Nagl are lobbying for Obama to keep American combat troops in Afghanistan through 2014 or beyond. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has staked out a position supporting the generals.
According to Bob Woodward’s prescient book Obama’s Wars, however, the president himself told Sen. Lindsay Graham behind closed-doors last year that “I can’t lose all the Democratic Party. And people at home don’t want to hear we’re going to be there for ten years.” The president slipped his promise to begin withdrawals by July 2011 into his West Point speech in December 2009, without first informing the generals.
So why did the DNC just try to speed up the president’s clock?
First, the American public is catching up with Barbara Lee’s timetable. A January Gallup Poll shows that 72 percent of American voters prefer to “speed up” the withdrawal of troops from the 2014 date. Eighty-six percent of Democrats, 72 percent of Independents and 61 percent of Republicans favored the more rapid withdrawal. But Pentagon denial persisted. Nagl, the counterinsurgency expert who heads the Center for a New American Security, wrote in the New York Times that there was “surprisingly little objection” by the public to the 2014 deadline.
Second, despite the recently revealed Pentagon “psy-ops” spin to visiting members of Congress, the war is not going well. The US is withdrawing from the Pech Valley in eastern Afghanistan which the Pentagon once described as “central” to the war against the Taliban. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking at West Point last Friday, said that any future Pentagon secretary who advises a president to fight wars like Iraq and Afghanistan “should have his head examined.” In a book review this weekend, the former New York Times lead war correspondent, Dexter Filkins, wrote that progress in Afghanistan would take a “miracle” over many more years.
Third, the US budget crisis cannot be addressed without facing the trillion-dollar war costs. Afghanistan military spending is projected at $200 billion minimum for the next two years, more than the domestic budget gap for the fifty American states combined. If, as the president has said, “the only nation I am interested in building is the United States of America,” the spending on the Long War has become an albatross.
Little gets by the White House, especially party resolutions disagreeing with the president. In fact, when Lee first submitted her proposal to the resolutions committee, the DNC staff pushed back with an alternative draft which mirrored the official line. The staff version removed language noting that a majority of Americans opposed the war. Instead of Lee’s call for a “significant and sizeable reduction” to be announced in July, and “swift withdrawal” after that date, the staff revision asserted the 2014 deadline.
Lee’s staff argued back. Then the DNC staff objections disappeared. Democratic insiders like Donna Brazille and Alice Germond signed on as co-sponsors of Lee’s language. The resolutions committee reported out the Lee measure—Amendment #13, as it was known—in a package of measures designed for voice adoption. There was no opposition. One member of the Resolutions Committee told this writer in an email “I’m quite sure the White House is okay with it.”
The president may be encouraging his party to become a counter-weight to the generals and Republicans who desire a long occupation. He then can claim, as he did in the Woodward book, that he can’t lose the Democratic Party. That would be more than shape-shifting. It could be game-changing.
But that’s only speculation. The next step is likely to be a follow-up letter from 100 or more Congressional representatives—including a few Republicans like prospective presidential candidate Ron Paul—asking the White House to heed the call to speed up the withdrawal and shift to a diplomatic peace strategy. Then will come debates and votes on war funding and exit strategies.
Related: Please see Barbara Lee Takes Afghanistan Issue to Democratic Party National Committee.