Policy & Strategy

Afghan war is ending, says White House

The Obama administration will push in the coming weeks and months the message that the war in Afghanistan is ending.

It’s a campaign pitch that will be trumpeted at next month’s NATO summit in Chicago, where international leaders are expected to sign off on an agreement with Afghanistan’s government that would establish a continued U.S. role in the country after security is handed over to local forces in 2014.

{mosads}A senior administration official told reporters this week that the U.S. transition from Afghanistan is the most important message the White House will be telegraphing as it moves into the general election. The official acknowledged Americans are weary of the war and said voters want the administration to focus on issues back home, especially concerning the economy.

The message has obvious political benefits for the White House, given the public’s tiring of two major wars. Obama ran as the candidate who would end the Iraq war and focus on Afghanistan. 

He hopes to campaign for reelection as the president who killed Osama bin Laden a year ago next week, and who is bringing U.S. troops home from both battlefronts. 

Yet Obama’s message also carries risks, most notably that he has put his personal political goals ahead of ensuring a successful outcome in Afghanistan.

“I’m concerned that somehow this timeline is an artificial one and posed for political reasons more than for policy reasons,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a possible GOP vice presidential candidate, told The Hill. “But let’s see what’s in that agreement.”

Senior administration officials say they are exiting Afghanistan in a responsible way, which will not eliminate the gains the United States achieved on the battlefield.

But there is still some cause for concern in withdrawing too early, observers say.

“We could end up not solving the problem, and that would lead to a civil war with no real solution,” said Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. “That’s problematic.”

Obama’s message on Afghanistan might depend on the security deal with Afghanistan’s government, details of which have not been released. Its implementation would be a key step toward a smooth transition and withdrawal from Afghanistan — and a successful agreement could give Obama Republican support on the issue.

The announcement of the deal was given tentative praise by some Senate Republicans. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a frequent critic of Obama’s policies in Afghanistan, said the deal is a “turning point in the war if it becomes reality.”

Asked if it could boost Obama on foreign policy in November, Graham said: “If it’s entered into and implemented correctly, I will be the first to applaud the administration for making a sound strategic administration. The real benefit is it stops the narrative we’re abandoning the place.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the president would get credit for a successful partnership agreement, though he questioned whether Obama was making Afghanistan part of his campaign.

“He’ll have to make the case,” Cornyn said. “He doesn’t talk about that issue these days, so I don’t know whether he wants to ignore it or tout his success, but I would give him credit for these recent developments.”

For Democrats, the latest developments are signs to the public that the United States is moving to end the war.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has suggested the United States should consider expediting its troop withdrawal after “surge” forces leave this summer, said Tuesday that the agreement would help bolster public support for the U.S. course in Afghanistan, which has suffered recently from the incidents there.

“Hopefully it will provide broader public support for the direction we’re heading, which is the ongoing reduction of troops and transfer of responsibility,” Levin told reporters.

One of the concerns surrounding the U.S. partnership with Afghanistan is the country’s president, Hamid Karzai, who has been accused of corruption. He’s also called for an early withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces after several of the recent incidents involving U.S. troops.

Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who spent the past year leading U.S. troops in Southwest Afghanistan, said at the Atlantic Council on Monday that corruption within Karzai’s administration had surpassed the Taliban as the top threat to coalition forces in Afghanistan. He said it could cause the United States “to lose everything we’ve gained” as troops withdraw.

Larry Korb, a former senior Pentagon official and analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that despite the problems in Afghanistan, the withdrawal and partnership agreement could help the administration show it’s responsibly drawing troops down while keeping the Taliban at bay.

“He can say he’s not abandoning it,” Korb said. “The Afghans have asked us to stay and we’re doing it to protect our own interests and it’s not going to be a big cost.”

— Carlo Munoz contributed to this report.

Tags Carl Levin John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio
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