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What It Might Look Like If the Bottom Drops Out on Afghanistan

10/19/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Helene Cooper observes that President Obama's reliance on GOP support for the war in Afghanistan could put him in a precarious spot should they withdraw that support. But what would that look like?  I'm not sure that the danger is, as Lindsey Graham says, that some on the right will "do to Obama the same thing the left did to Bush with Iraq." Yes, George Will, Andrew Bacevich, and now Chuck Hagel have, to varying degrees, criticized U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.  But judging by the state of Republican discourse these days, it seems unlikely that these paleoconservatives will carry the right's narrative on Afghanistan. 

What's far more likely is that hawkish conservatives in congress end up assailing the administration, not for doing too much, but for not doing enough. Suppose Obama approves a troop increase of somewhere between 7,000 and 14,000 (the low-end of what has so far been discussed by members of McChrystal's civilian advisory team)  And suppose a year from now Afghanistan is in the same shape it is now, or worse. Its hard to imagine John McCain, John Boehner or anyone else in the conservative leadership doing a 180 and suddenly opposing the war.   Instead, conservatives will likely do many liberals did on Iraq in 2004, and argue that the war effort is suffering due to insufficient resources\mismanagement\failure of leadership.

Consider also the political incentives for Republicans to take a pro-war position on Afghanistan.  Why, amidst increasing calls for withdraw from the left, and the absence of progress on the battlefield, would opportunistic conservatives refrain from accusing Democrats of being weak on national security? Whatever you think about the actual threat of terrorism from Afghanistan (and Pakistan), invoking that threat is still a pretty useful political tool. Any perceived schism between Obama and the military leadership on the strategy for Afghanistan would also play well with the right.  No, it becomes pretty hard to imagine conservatives joining with the anti-war types on this one.  

Now, I could see this playing out in a variety of ways.  One possibility is that a year from now, the Obama administration, still committed to Afghanistan, but lacking progressive support, is pulled deeper into the conflict by pro-war Republicans. On the other hand, if the situation hasn't improved at all, a new coalition, comprised of progressives and paleoconservatives could give Obama the cover he needs to re-position his policy toward disengagement.  Spencer suggests a third possibility, which is that the administration resists both calls for increased escalation and outright withdrawal, with negative consequences to their domestic agenda (and I think, their foreign policy agenda as well).  And finally, we shouldn't discount the chance that the administration's strategy could show signs of success, which would give them latitude with both the left and the right.

Because everything in Afghanistan remain so fluid, it's tough to forecast what the political debate will look like in one year's time.  But it probably won't be pretty.

Cross-posted on Democracy Arsenal.