No more than one year ago, it was widely assumed that the great foreign policy challenge facing the next president would be what to do with U.S. troops in Iraq. The surge had produced a unexpected geopolitical dilemma: was the reduction of violence enough for American forces to leave, or simply affirmation that a sizable U.S. military presence was necessary?
That question, however, has largely been solved -- taken off the political shelf by the signing of a Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Iraq. And now, somewhat remarkably, the foreign policy issue being hotly debated is one where there was once seemingly wide consensus.
Afghanistan, the so-called 'good war,' was and remains a dangerous theater. During the closing months of the presidential campaign it was taken as gospel that America needed to send more troops there. Even John McCain, initially skittish on the notion, came to argue that a greater U.S. military buildup was needed.
And yet, over the last few weeks, the progressive community that once pleaded for greater resources and attention to Afghanistan has begun to raise concerns about the idea that additional forces could change that country's increasingly dire situation.
Sen. Russ Feingold launched a major salvo just weeks before the election, when he penned an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, questioning the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan. He was pre-dated by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who warned about the United States repeating the Soviet Union's ill-thought-out efforts in that region, during an interview with the Huffington Post. On Monday, the scales tipped even further, when the chief of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan warned that a re-intervention into the country would be pointless if not done with deep cultural sensitivities.
Obama, appearing on "Meet the Press" this past Sunday, attempted to assuage these concerns by noting the past will serve as a guide when (or if) the United States sends two additional brigades to Afghanistan.
"We do have to be mindful of the history of Afghanistan," he said. "It is tough territory. There is a fierce independence in Afghanistan. And if the perception is: we are there simply to impose ourselves in a long-term occupation that is not going to work in Afghanistan."
But with the presidential election concluded the voices of skepticism have grown only louder.
"There is a growing dissent," Caroline Wadhams, a Senior National Security Policy Analyst for the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "I think around town there is new thinking: 'Well, what do we actually want to achieve?' The fact that they are doing all those strategic reviews reveals we are suffering the symptom of the same [foreign policy] problems [of the past]: no one is sure what our objectives are and what we should do now."
The angst is driven by a variety of concerns: what a longer-term military commitment to Afghanistan could mean for Obama's domestic and foreign policy agendas, whether the Afghanistan has the capacity to improve itself, and whether U.S. military forces are best suited for the task.
"People are understanding now how difficult it is going to be," said Wadhams. "You realize, 'Oh my god, we have so much to do and are we any good at this? Are we any good at anti-corruption? We have never been good at counter-narcotics. And how do you improve government?' These are extremely difficult objectives."
It is a sharp and remarkable contrast to the tone that members of the progressive foreign policy intelligentsia were using just several years ago. Back in September 2005, Brian Katulis and Larry Korb -- both of the Center for American Progress -- penned one of the earliest reports calling for a "strategic redeployment" of U.S. forces our of Iraq and into Afghanistan.
The study called for removing 80,000 troops coming out of Iraq and distributing "up to two active brigades [approximately 20,000 troops] ... to bolster US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan and support counter-terrorist operations in Africa and Asia. In Afghanistan, more troops are urgently needed to beat back the resurging Taliban forces and to maintain security throughout the country."
Now, as Katulis admitted himself, the same people who were championing the idea of strategic redeployment are questioning why more troops are needed. The move is driven, those analysts say, both by political and time sensitivities. A buildup in forces in Afghanistan is far different than the surge of troops in Iraq. There is more nuance as to what America aims to accomplish in the former country. Mostly, however, there is a new level of caution that comes with the responsibility of governing.
"During a campaign there is a willingness to not emphasize differences," said Max Bergmann, Deputy Policy Director at the National Security Network. "I don't think that means they were overlooked. Progressives were fully aware of the issues. But now that it is time to govern, those differences will become more public. Everyone does agree, however, that we need to refocus there."