Obama’s Afghan Strategy Forges a Middle Ground in U.S. Thought

Posted June 23rd, 2011 at 2:40 am (UTC-5)
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U.S. President Barack Obama's new troop withdrawal plan for Afghanistan appears to fall in the middle ground of current American thinking about the decade-long war — too quick a drawdown for some of its military commanders, but possibly too slow for a war-weary electorate.

Mr. Obama announced his plan Wednesday night to bring home 33,000 of the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan by September 2012, two months before he faces voters in his re-election bid for a second four-year term. The size of the remaining U.S. force in Afghanistan would still be about twice as big as when he took office in January 2009, although he called for a total withdrawal by the end of 2014.

The president faced competing considerations in deciding how many troops to withdraw, and how soon.

Some military commanders voiced the fear that hard-won territorial victories against Taliban insurgents could be reversed with too fast of a troop drawdown. But one new poll of U.S. voters released this week showed that 56 percent favored bringing the troops home as quickly as possible.

Some U.S. lawmakers — both conservative Republicans who often oppose Mr. Obama's policy initiatives and liberal Democrats normally aligned with the president — have voiced growing impatience with the Afghan war effort.

Some say that with the successful U.S. commando raid last month in Pakistan that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the U.S. has already accomplished a prime goal of its effort to defeat the terrorists who attacked the U.S. in 2001. Others say the U.S., with its sluggish economy, cannot afford to continue the Afghan war, whose cost may reach $120 billion this year. Some of these critics say the war expenditures would be better spent on urgent domestic projects.

Politically, Mr. Obama could be helped by divisions among the eight Republican contenders seeking their party's presidential nomination to oppose him. The leading Republican contender, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, says the U.S. should “not adhere to an arbitrary timetable” for withdrawal and that the decision should not based on politics or economics.

But one of Romney's rivals for the nomination, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, has called for a faster end to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, and has questioned whether the U.S. can afford its continued involvement. Still another presidential aspirant, former governor Tim Pawlenty, says it is “really important” for the U.S. to “finish the job correctly.”

Whatever the pace of the withdrawal, Mr. Obama warned Afghanistan that American troops “will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.”