A longtime hawk at the Council on Foreign Relations, Stephen Biddle, advises careful “political management” of American anti-war opinion in the 2012 election cycle to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the Karzai government or a premature withdrawal of American forces.
Writing in the current issue of American Interest on “Winding Down in Afghanistan,” Stephen Biddle sees a dilemma for the national security elite: too rapid a withdrawal of American troops will destabilize the fragile Afghan government, while too slow a pace will anger American public opinion.
The Biddle solution is too “keep the debate muted and the issue quiet [as] the safest course politically” in the election year. Withdrawing enough troops to satisfy the peace bloc while keeping enough troops to preserve the Karzai government is Biddle’s political-military strategy. His greatest fear is that “a Left-Right coalition against the center could eventually defund the war in Congress, or a Republican could be elected president on an anti-war platform with similar effect.” (Sept.-Oct. 2011, pp. 40-49)
The numbers that chill Biddle include:
- Declining public support, from a high mark in March 2009 when 56 percent said the war was worth fighting (Washington Post/ABC);
- A March 2011 level of 31 percent support in the same poll;
- A CNN poll in June 2011 showing only 18 percent supporting current troop levels, 74 percent favoring steady withdrawals, and 39 percent endorsing immediate withdrawal (up 9 points in just one month);
- 204 House votes, including 26 Republicans, favoring rapid withdrawal cast in May; Republicans like Grover Norquist, John Huntsman and Ron Paul, speaking against the war while Mitt Romney “has begun to move in that direction.”
Biddle thinks he is safe from his nightmare of withdrawal because the war, while unpopular, is losing salience among election year issues, being replaced by the economy and jobs. He ignores the prospect of a campaign demanding the transfer of tax dollars from Afghanistan and Iraq to American needs at home, which could generate $200 billion through the November 2011 election. The August 3rd decision of the AFL-CIO to link the economy to wasteful spending on Afghanistan occurred after Biddle’s article was submitted.
The challenge for the peace movement, based on Biddle’s reasoning, is to keep the Afghanistan issue alive amidst the presidential and congressional debates over deficits, budgets and unemployment. The recent proposal by Senate Democrats to include $1.2 trillion in cuts from Iraq and Afghanistan in their budget proposal is a step to linking the issues. It remains to be seen if the Democrats on the so-called budget “super-committee” will include that trillion dollars in their agenda this fall. Letters and petitions from anti-war Democrats and Republicans to the “super-committee” could have influence.
Even if Afghanistan is diminished as a national political issue, however, the war will retain salience in numerous closely fought state battlegrounds where door-to-door campaigning and turnout are all-important. It is significant that Van Jones’ proposed American Dream campaign includes the war spending issue at its center.
Peace sentiment in America is already bringing about the scenario Biddle fears in Afghanistan, where a growing majority of Afghans are convinced that the American and Coalition troops will be leaving in the near term. That dynamic will lead to several possible outcomes: accelerated peace talks with the Taliban and Pakistan, an implosion of the rotting Karzai regime and its shaky military, or a renewed threat of civil war between the Taliban and elements of the Northern Alliance which dominate the Afghan armed forces. The Obama administration and NATO need more than ever a diplomatic initiative parallel to their gradual withdrawals.