President Barack Obama has announced that he is withdrawing 33,000 troops from Afghanistan to be completed by summer 2012, just months before the presidential election in November. He said that 10,000 of those leaving Afghanistan would start this month. This will leave about 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan along with a coalition of other nations.
In his speech announcing the withdrawal, he restated quite clearly that the “goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which Al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies”.
However, there can be little doubt that much of the draw down is driven by political circumstances. This was affirmed when after the speech, a poll indicated that 39% of voters agreed that, on balance, the numbers that were scheduled to leave were about right. Yet, the same poll revealed that of those polled 28% said that the pullout was rushed. It is worth noting however is that there was only a four point difference between Republicans and Democrats who thought the withdrawal was too slow and needed to be sped up, 23% to 27% respectively.
The same poll found the decision had no affect of 43% of voters. If this number rises over time, the withdrawal could backfire on Obama. The Republicans, keen to maximise their possible votes by shoring up the party base as well as wooing any conservative-leaning independents, angry at Obama’s decision, could use the draw down to their advantage.
In the second sentence of this speech President Obama mentions Osama bin Laden with the clear implication being that anyone who can preside over the death of such a man is therefore eminently qualified to decide the scale of involvement in Afghanistan, and US security more generally. It is also a subtle reminder to critics both within and without his own Democratic Party – as well as the Republicans – that he is not soft on national security and defence. Later in the speech he makes the link between his bin Laden’s death and his being Commander-in-Chief explicit by saying “we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that Al Qaeda had ever known”.
The impact of the death of Osama bin Laden on Obama’s presidency is significant, though can at times be overstated. It will not win him a second term on its own but is a useful political tool that he can defend himself with against a lacklustre Republican field of candidates. Presumed frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney said that “We shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics”.
Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty former governor of Minnesota said that the speech President Obama gave was “deeply concerning” and noting that “To leave now when we’re so close to a successful completion … I think is a grave mistake”. Recently announced as a candidate for the nomination, former Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman said that Obama was not drawing down troops fast enough.
These divergent views represent a Republican field in flux, with many candidates trying to get media attention and the support of core Republicans, with some contenders still thought to be considering a bid for the nomination, notably Rick Perry, governor of Texas.
In the speech President Obama made much of the military success that has been achieved in Afghanistan, however it is predicated on continued success. The situation on the ground has been described as “fragile and reversible”. Should it deteriorate significantly, as is entirely possible, Obama’s reputation for national security and therefore his own prospects for re-election would worsen considerably. So after all that populism, it might not have been such a beneficial decision after all and may even hurt his bid for re-election.