President Obama’s policy in Afghanistan has been described as “Hello, I must be going.” When he announced the US troop surge in the fall of 2009, he also announced the date that the US would begin to draw down its forces. The specific date he announced for the draw down to commence was July 2011. That’s two months from today.
The execution of Osama bin Laden and his posse in Abbottabad, Pakistan, makes it much easier, politically, to make “Hello, I must be going” a coherent, even popular, policy. American public opinion has grown weary of the Afghan war. Now that Osama lies at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, public opinion will likely endorse the idea — first expressed by Vermont Senator George Aiken in the context of the Vietnam War — of declaring victory in Afghanistan and getting out.
The fact is that no vital US interest is at stake in Afghanistan. We have a huge national interest in making sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into the wrong hands. The best way to make our Pakistan policy coherent is to disengage from Afghanistan, thus denying Pakistan the leverage (military supply lines, etc) that has made the relationship so treacherous since 2002. Absent that leverage, Pakistan will finally have to make its choice: an alliance with the US or the tactical benefits of the various Talibans it sponsors. It’s long since past the time that they be forced to choose.
President Obama, in the wake of the bin Laden raid, has the electorate’s broad political permission to reconfigure American foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. He would be well-advised to end the ill-conceived Libyan intervention as quickly as possible, wind down Afghanistan as quickly as possible, maintain the US military presence in Iraq for the medium term and focus on what matters: (1) containment of Iran, (2) Egypt’s transition and (3) the stabilisation of Syria. Central Asia could use some benign US neglect. The public will support all of this.
Republicans, likely, will not. They will find pieces of the puzzle to be ill-fitting or insufficiently muscular. This will be help President Obama. It will allow him to engage the Republicans on the issue, with public opinion on his side. Politicians pray for issues where their view conforms to the public view and their opponents argue to the contrary.
If the Republicans were smart, they would embrace “Hello, I must be going” in Central Asia and pre- endorse a Presidential policy shift. If the GOP agrees, the issue is rendered moot. For the foreseeable future, Afghanistan will likely be a net political plus for President Obama. The less the GOP talks about it, the better for them politically.
The focus of the cable news shows and the 24/7 media is whether President Obama gets a polling “bounce” from the bin Laden raid. That’s irrelevant. What he gets is latitude to act. If he uses it wisely, positive poll numbers will follow. But he has to move fast. It has to be something people can see; boots on the ground at Fort Bragg and Fort Hood.