As a candidate opposing the Iraq War, Barack Obama improved his hawkish credentials by promising to track down Osama bin Laden, expand drone attacks, and escalate the American troop numbers in Afghanistan. Three years later, bin Laden is dead, the drones inflame Pakistan opinion and complicate a peace settlement, and 33,000 American troops are scheduled to pull out by the end of 2012 with "steady withdrawals" to continue after. Sixty-eight thousand U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan by this year's end, with the deadline for withdrawing most of them by December 2014.
By the numbers, Afghanistan has already directly cost taxpayers $528.8 billion, and the Obama request for Afghanistan this fiscal year is $107 billion. That does not include the hidden, indirect costs -- accrual such as long-term Social Security, disability, and medical care for veterans, etc. -- partly spurred by an order last year from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which will add hundreds of billions, if not trillions to the ultimate financial impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The president's internal political calculation in 2008 was that he could never pull out of Afghanistan without killing Al Qaeda's top leadership and building a firewall against a Taliban return to power. While perhaps correct politically, this has led to an Afghan quagmire shaken by severe contradictions.
- Hamid Karzai remains an unpopular, unreliable president whose term ends in 2014, the year of the troop withdrawal deadline. He seeks $3.5-6 billion each of the next two years to build up the Afghan armed forces, plus a Western commitment to funding for at least another decade, an impossible expectation.
Earlier this year, the Taliban indicated through intermediaries a willingness to hold dialogue with the West, in Qatar, but demanded the release of several detainees now in Guantanamo, possibly in exchange for an American POW, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Those discussions are in trouble, partly because of Republican opposition to releasing U.S.-held Taliban combatants. As a result, the Obama administration's hope for progress in negotiations has hit the skids.
Despite these insuperable obstacles, Obama will try mightily at the Chicago NATO summit to indicate that the Afghanistan war is winding down, aware that an implosion is possible as Karzai trembles, millionaire Afghans flee the country, and the Afghan forces flounder. The Republicans will blame Obama for "losing" Afghanistan while trying to avoid any recommendations of their own.
Obama's latest Afghanistan speech indicates where he is headed in a situation clearly out of control:
- He has narrowed the mission to an obtainable one, "to make sure that al-Qaeda could never again use this country [Afghanistan] to launch attacks against us."
If this seems much too muddled a process, it is because it is being rushed for the Chicago summit and is beyond US control in any event.
But if Obama campaigns on ending the Iraq War and "winding down" Afghanistan, it will only accelerate the march to the exits. No one wants to be the last American soldier to die, or the last Western country to suffer casualties, in an unwinnable, unaffordable war that Americans do not much care about.