President Obama risks having his own “mission accomplished” moment in Afghanistan nine years to the day after President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Obama’s surprise trip to the war zone was timed for the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, not Bush’s May 1, 2003, landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. And Obama spoke to the nation against a modest backdrop of military trucks, as opposed to the dramatic setting for Bush’s speech.
“The tide has turned,” Obama said. “We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan Security Forces. We devastated al Qaeda’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set – to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild – is within reach.”
Obama’s use of the bin Laden anniversary to tout his success in Afghanistan comes with some question marks and risks.
The White House was already under attack for spiking the football on the bin Laden anniversary with a media blitz that included inviting NBC’s Brian Williams for an interview in the situation room where Obama and his advisers watched last year’s covert mission in Pakistan. It prompted frequent Obama critic Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to snipe that real heroes “don’t brag.”
That criticism will only increase with Tuesday’s events, in which Obama used the bin Laden anniversary to go on network television to proclaim a new chapter in the U.S. involvement with Afghanistan.
“The tide has turned,” said Obama.
“Clearly this trip is campaign related,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who compared Obama’s visit to Afghanistan to last week’s tour of college campuses intended to win over student voters.
“Similarly, this trip to Afghanistan is an attempt to shore up his national security credentials, because he has spent the past three years gutting our military,” Inhofe said in a statement.
The administration strongly pushed back at such suggestions, with one official in a Tuesday conference call saying it was “always the president's intention” to spend the bin Laden anniversary with the troops.
“What better place to spend time with the troops?” said the official. “This was a huge opportunity to achieve a core objective and to visit with the troops.”
U.S. officials noted that Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai both wanted to sign the agreement before this month’s NATO summit in Chicago, but they also acknowledged the trip was timed for the bin Laden anniversary.
The confidence displayed by the trip might rouse Obama’s supporters and win over independents by underlining his major national security accomplishment. So might the shot Obama took on Monday at Mitt Romney, his presumptive GOP opponent in the fall.
In 2007, Romney said it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” Obama, while saying he did not believe there had been “excessive celebration” by his administration, encouraged reporters to look at Romney’s past statement in deciding whether he would have made the decision to order the bin Laden raid.
Still, Obama’s use of bin Laden could also turn off voters dismayed that the killing of the terrorist has become a political football.
Arianna Huffington, a liberal figurehead, said this week an Obama campaign ad suggesting likely GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney would not have ordered the bin Laden mission was “despicable.”
A second risk for Obama is that like Bush’s mission accomplished banner, the pomp and circumstance of Tuesday’s trip to Afghanistan will come back to haunt him.
Many liberals who supported Obama in 2008 are disappointed the president would keep soldiers in Afghanistan through the end of 2014. They are unlikely to be won over by a strategic partnership that does not to change that withdrawal date.
There is also the risk, Obama acknowledged at the press conference with Karzai, that there will be “difficult days ahead.”
The summer fighting season is about to begin in Afghanistan, and suicide bombings in Kabul last month hinted at the Taliban’s determination to make the U.S. exit from the country as painful as possible.
“I’m concerned there’s a little too much potential chatter about this ending the war,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “There’s no ending of the war or conflict in this agreement. This is simply cementing in ongoing U.S. support.”
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Pentagon, said that the strategic partnership would do little to convince the Taliban that the United States is committed to Afghanistan.
“The whole idea that you can issue some kind of statement or document that’s going to convince the Taliban and the region that our strategic agreement is serious is a fantasy,” he said. “The reality is there are enough doubts and enough uncertainty, that the only way to prove we’re going to say is to stay.”
In fact, Obama himself talked of the likelihood that more U.S. soldiers will die as part of the mission to keep the country from falling back into the Taliban’s control.
“I know the battle is not yet over. Some of your buddies are going to get injured, and some of your buddies may get killed,” Obama said in an speech to soldiers at Bagram Airfield that preceded his national address. “And there’s going to be heartbreak and pain and difficulty ahead.”
Those comments suggest Obama was aware his speech came nine years to the date of Bush’s mission accomplished moment, and that he wanted to be careful not to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.