The president’s surprise trip to Afghanistan on the eve of the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death dramatically underscored one of the central themes of his re-election campaign. His successful management of foreign policy has brought two of the longest and more divisive military interventions in U.S. history to relatively successful conclusions while avoiding new confrontations in the Middle East or Asia.
Events could still conspire to undermine the substance behind the image. The Taliban will still have something to say about the U.S.’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the president announced in a confident speech from Kabul early Wednesday morning. The mini-crisis in China, where human rights activist Chen Guangcheng is probably holed up in the U.S. embassy in Beijing after escaping house arrest, could spiral into a major confrontation between the world’s two largest economies just as crucial economic talks are getting underway.
But the Afghanstan withdrawal timetable outlined during the president’s ten-minute talk to the American people from Bagram Air Base repeated a promise he made last year – that the last U.S. combat troops will be gone from that war torn country by the end of 2014. The military is in the process of drawing down another 23,000 troops, that will leave just 68,000 in Afghanistan by this fall.
There are also budget victories to be won from a smaller commitment that focuses more on aid and economic development than on military action. The Congressional Budget Office baseline budget in March assumed the U.S. would spend $127 billion a year over the next decade in Afghanistan. The president’s budget projected that spending to fall to $44 billion a year by 2014, which would chop $800 billion off the projected 10-year deficit.
Those savings will come in part from what appeared to be an effort by Obama to appeal to the public in Afghanistan. With the militantly independent Afghani population viscerally opposed to any foreigner’s presence in their country, Obama pledged there would be no permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan.
Corruption in Afghanistan has been rampant. The U.S. has lost as much as $60 billion to waste and fraud over the last decade, and an estimated $360 billion has wound up in the hands of the Taliban -- the very group the U.S. has been fighting.
However, in a new development, the president revealed that talks have begun with the Taliban opposition in coordination with the Afghan government. “We’ve made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws,” the president said.
The agreement reached with Afghan President Hamid Karzai eliminated the possibility that the U.S. would “cut-and-run.” It pledged the U.S. to at least another decade of engagement in that country. Without specifying levels of aid or a number for advisors, the nine-page agreement Obama signed committed the U.S. to support local efforts to fight terrorism, build democratic institutions, promote economic development, end corruption and “protect rights for all – men and women, boys and girls.”
“We have traveled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war,” the president said as he stood before a heavily armored MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle draped with an American flag. “Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
While critics have accused the president of using the announcement to highlight the anniversary of bin Laden’s death, its timing was dictated just as much by this month’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Chicago. The U.S. needed to send a clear signal to the Karzai government that the allies were committed to a continuing role in Afghanistan going forward.
There are currently over 130,000 troops from 50 countries serving in Afghanistan under the NATO banner. Cash-strapped countries like the United Kingdom and France as well as Germany are planning their own troop withdrawals over the next 18 months.
The agreement signed by the two presidents outlined the ongoing commitments by western nations to Afghanistan. No one, least of all the Afghanis, wants to see another precipitous withdrawal like Russia’s, which led to the triumph of a government led by the fundamentalist Taliban and provided a safe haven for bin Laden’s al Qaeda to plan and launch the successful terrorist assault of 9/11.
Obama said that Afghan security forces already patrol half of that mountainous country. The agreement called for Afghan troops to lead all combat operations by sometime next year. “International troops will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghans, and fight alongside them when needed,” Obama said. “But we will shift into a support role as Afghans step forward.”
That theme dominated the president’s remarks to the 3,200 troops who were assembled at 1 a.m. to greet the president after he landed. Gen. John Allen, the local commander of U.S. troops, introduced the president by saying the decisions made in Chicago will be critical to making their sacrifices worthwhile. “When they are in Chicago, they are going to celebrate your achievement and they are going to plan the future of this great cause,” Allen said.
The president cautioned the troops that their mission was not yet complete. “The battle’s not yet over,” he said. “Some of your buddies are going to get injured and some of your buddies may get killed and there’s going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead. But there’s a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices you’ve made.”
Obama’s Afghan spring peace offensive appears to have caught Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s campaign off guard. After the president’s campaign staff released a video last week that questioned whether Romney would have authorized last year’s raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, the presumptive nominee appeared on “CBS This Morning” to complain that the president had turned the anniversary into “a politically divisive event.” Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008, accused the president of “doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get re-elected.”
Perhaps. But there is no doubt that Americans are ready for an end to this decade-long war. The latest polls show nearly three-quarters of voters are opposed to a continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
“In pursuit of a durable peace, America has no designs beyond an end to al Qaeda safe havens and respect for Afghan sovereignty,” the president said.