An Afghanistan endgame constrained by Washington’s shrinking wallet
By Glenn Nye WASHINGTON -- Major decisions on the endgame in Afghanistan are coming soon in Washington. However, the exit plan for U.S. and NATO forces may be shaped more by the economic climate in the United States than by the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Public support for the war has been waning as Americans struggle with a weak economic recovery. A June ABC/Washington Post poll revealed that only 43% of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. In fact, this number includes a 12-point increase since March, likely a response to the successful killing of Osama bin Laden.
According to the same poll, 73% of Americans believe the United States should withdraw a substantial number of combat forces from Afghanistan this summer. More revealingly, the bump in President Barack Obama’s popularity after the bin Laden raid has proved short-lived, with his public approval rating retreating to 52% only a month after having increased from 44% to 60%. The killing of bin Laden was celebrated as a major step forward in the fight against global terror. But Americans are now asking why U.S. soldiers are still in Afghanistan and when their campaign will end. The American public was already souring on a war that costs about $2 billion per week, and that was before recent job figures showed an increase in the unemployment rate to 9.1%. Americans are carefully observing the vibrant and necessary debate underway on the unsustainable national debt and competing domestic priorities.
With uncomfortable sacrifices on the horizon, investing in a war without clearly measurable returns is getting harder and harder to justify. Public opinion against the Afghan War is increasingly making itself felt in Congress. Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for the withdrawal of at least 15,000 troops this year, while Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer argued for a “significant and early transfer of responsibility to the Afghan people.” On May 26, a bipartisan group in the U.S. House of Representatives voted for legislation that would have required Obama to produce a plan and timetable for the accelerated withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. A series of such resolutions over the past few years had failed, but the recent vote—which failed only by the narrow margin of 204-215—clearly demonstrates that public skepticism is starting to gain traction in Congress. Later this month, Obama is expected to address the American public on U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. The summer 2011 threshold was intended to be a decision point for how many of the surge forces deployed in Afghanistan would be withdrawn and how quickly. But, coinciding as it does with the beginning of the 2012 presidential election process, this moment will inevitably demand that the president lay out a broader vision of the United States’ long-term military presence in the region.
Particularly considering the current economic climate, Americans are unlikely to be compelled by the notion that simply staying the course will lead to success.The progress of the nation-building effort in Afghanistan was never the key determining factor in Washington’s strategy for the country. The real issue is whether Afghan forces are developing an ability to secure their own country from terrorists seeking to locate there and the local groups willing to aid them. The U.S.-led international military presence is designed to provide a secure space for the development of local capacity, an inherently temporary mission. However, the patience among the American public for the inevitable transfer of responsibility to Afghans is now wearing thin. Consternation about the state of the American economy and the ability of the United States to afford its leading role in international affairs will have implications for America’s response to the Arab Spring, the intervention in Libya, and other challenges shared with European allies. But the effects will perhaps be most greatly felt in Afghanistan, where NATO members have made significant investments and where important decisions affecting the outcome of a ten-year war will have to be made very soon.
Within the next few weeks, Obama’s national security team is expected to present him options for American drawdown in Afghanistan. Obama will have to make a tough choice. He could argue to a skeptical and gloomy American public that progress warrants the continued robust presence of American forces for some time to come. Or he could heed public will and propose an expedited exit plan. If he does the former, he needs to be prepared for the increasing chance that Congress will soon take more aggressive steps to reduce America’s commitment in Afghanistan. Either way, Obama must accept that given current economic conditions, Americans’ frustrations with the war will only get worse.
Glenn Nye, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a Senior Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington. Photo some rights reserved, U.S. Army
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