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The Nation

Obama's Too-Slow Afghan "Exit" Strategy Scores Him No Political Points

John Nichols

On Tuesday night, Obama committed himself and his administration to a vision of an extended occupation of Afghanistan – and occupation with no likelihood of a conclusion until after his first term is finished.

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for president because grassroots progressives thought he was marginally more anti-war than Hillary Clinton.

After securing the nomination, Obama was elected president.


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Upon securing the Oval Office, he promptly abandoned any pretense of being opposed to military misadventures abroad, appointed Clinton as his Secretary of State, kept the Bush-Cheney regime’s team at the Department of Defense, surged more troops into Afghanistan and steered U.S. forces into a new fight with Libya.

Now, the president is proposing to remove some of the troops he sent to Afghanistan – about 10,000 (roughly 7 percent of the occupation force) by the end of the year.
The U.S. force on the ground in Afghanistan will still be more substantial than the force that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney put on the ground there.
Indeed, even by the most optimistic timeline proposed by Obama, the U.S. occupation force will at the end of Obama’s first term be equal in size to the force that was there when Bush and Cheney left the White House in 2009.
The occupation will continue.
Another billion dollars will continue to be spent every week to ten days.
And Obama’s best-case scenario does not have the United States out of Afghanistan by 2012, 2013 or 2014. While the president imagines that combat forces may be largely out of the Afghanistan by then, he does not guarantee that. And he suggests that a dramatic U.S. presence will remain beyond 2014 – and almost certainly beyond what the president hopes will be his second term.
That's too slow a timeline, according to everyone from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman -- who issued some of the first negative reviews of Obama's vague and disappointing speech. Huntsman voiced what is almost assuredly the most popular political sentiment of the moment, calling for "a safe but rapid withdrawal."
Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin, D-Michigan, shared the view, suggesting that Obama had not gone far enough and calling for an "accelerated withdrawal" of U.S. forces. Key Republicans in Congress, especially in the House, were similarly unimpressed with the president's plan.
Will Americans be impressed that Obama has added another footnote to the story of what has become his war?
Will Obama gain any political advantage as a result of his much-ballyhooed announcement?
No way.
The president is out of touch with his base within the Democratic Party, which will neither be satisfied nor energized by a tepid troop drawdown.
That’s significant, as Obama needs to renew the faith and commitment of the base that nominated and elected him.
As significant is the extent to which the president is out of touch with the great majority of Americans.
A new Pew Research Center survey finds that 56 percent of Americans want all U.S. forces removed rapidly from Afghanistan. That is, according to Pew, an “all-time high” level of support for what might reasonably be defined as “immediate” withdrawal. (The term “immediate” can reasonably be read as a shorthand reference to the quick, orderly and complete removal of forces over a period of several months. What is actually “immediate” is the commitment to get all the way out; the process, necessarily, takes some time.)
The 56 percent support for rapid withdrawal represents a dramatic spike in anti-war sentiment since a year ago, when only 40 percent of those surveyed were in favor of a quick exit.
The Pew poll finds that 67 percent of Democrats favor ending the Afghanistan mission (up from 43 percent a year ago). Among independents, 57 percent favor a quick exit (up from 42 percent last year). Among Republicans, 43 percent are for rapidly removing the troops -- and the tax dollars – that are being poured into America’s longest war. That’s a doubling of anti-war sentiment in the party of Bush and Cheney.
Obama may not recognize the shifting sentiments with regard to the Afghanistan imbroglio. But his potential challengers do.
Leading Republican presidential contenders, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, support a speedier withdrawal than does Obama.
Other prominent Republicans, such as Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, favor the swift removal of all troops.
On Tuesday night, Obama committed himself and his administration to a vision of an extended occupation of Afghanistan – and occupation with no likelihood of a conclusion until after his first term is finished.
That will not yield him any political benefits. But it might help his Republican opponent, who might well run in 2012 as a more anti-war candidate than does Obama.

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