Obama's Electoral Fate Hinges on Pullout Reaction

Wednesday, 22 Jun 2011 08:57 PM

 

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President Barack Obama's new troop drawdown plan for Afghanistan may be too slow to satisfy the growing ranks of war-weary U.S. lawmakers and too fast to sit well with military leaders.

But Obama is gambling that a promise to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops this year and 23,000 more by the end of next summer will be enough to buy time to prevent Afghanistan from causing serious damage to his 2012 re-election prospects.

The troop reductions he was expected to unveil in a televised speech Wednesday night are deeper and quicker than the Pentagon sought, reflecting pressure to start laying out an endgame in a long, costly and increasingly unpopular war.

At the same time, the speed and scope of the drawdown appear to fall short of the demands of many of Obama's own Democratic allies and a growing number of Republicans advocating an accelerated pullout from Afghanistan.

Unease in Washington over the decade-long war has escalated amid rising worries about tight budgets and high unemployment, which polls show to be Americans' chief concerns and the issues likely to drive voters in the next presidential election.

Although polls show Afghanistan still registering relatively low on the list of the U.S. electorate's priorities, Obama and his aides are taking heed of mounting skepticism about the war, which is costing the United States $110 billion a year.

A Pew Research poll released Tuesday found a record 56 percent of Americans favored bringing the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan home as quickly as possible.

By sending Americans a message he is moving to wind down the war, Obama may gain breathing room to avoid serious political repercussions as he accelerates his re-election bid.

The White House may even be banking on getting a boost when voters see troops streaming home from Afghanistan late next summer around the time of the Democratic National Convention in the final run-up to the November election.

Even with the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by then, the United States will still have nearly twice as many forces in Afghanistan than when Obama took office in 2009.

Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal strategy carries peril as well as promise.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates had led a drive by the Pentagon brass arguing for only a modest troop drawdown to prevent the reversal of recent gains on the ground against a Taliban-led insurgency.

White House advisers, led by Vice President Joe Biden, had used the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to buttress the argument the time was ripe to scale back the counterinsurgency campaign spearheaded by the 30,000 extra "surge" troops Obama ordered deployed in late 2009.

There is also the political risk of Obama appearing to have snubbed his military commanders by failing to take their recommendation on the pace of withdrawal.

But Obama may feel he can afford to weather any dispute with the military after gaining greater credibility as commander in chief by ordering the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden last month in Pakistan.

His first chance to test how well the drawdown plan sits with the military will be Thursday, when he visits Fort Drum in upstate New York, home to an army unit that has been among the most frequently deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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