President Obama Seeks The Right Balance In Afghanistan
Striking the Chord Between Ending the War and Offering Long-Term Support
Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, outlining a plan to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014 and to continue aiding the Afghan government through 2024. The agreement assures the Afghan people of long-term support during a time of transition, sending a clear message that the U.S. is committed to more than just military security — in fact, the agreement sets up a new bilateral commission to address corruption, political reform, women’s rights, and human rights abuses in the country. It also contains a clause pledging that the U.S. will not attack another country from its bases within Afghanistan.
Obama detailed the points of the agreement in an address to the nation from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan last night. In his remarks, Obama acknowledged that the American public has grown weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pledging to both end the longstanding U.S. involvement and remain committed to building a lasting infrastructure in the region. This was not a “mission accomplished” speech; instead, Obama noted that there will be “difficult days ahead” and that the “enormous sacrifices of our men and women are not over,” balancing the need to bring troops home with the need to set up political, economic, and military stability in Afghanistan before declaring an end to the war.
The Longest War In Our Nation’s History
George W. Bush’s war in Iraq — which President Obama opposed from the beginning and eventually brought to an end — drained valuable energy and resources from Afghanistan, the country Obama has always considered to be the real priority. After over ten years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, which marks it as the longest war in U.S. history, the newly-signed strategic partnership agreement now offers a way forward amid murky waters. A review of some political challenges that currently face the country:
PUBLIC OPINION DROPS OFF FOR U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN: During the first few months of this year, public support for the war in Afghanistan dropped sharply, according to polls from CNN and Pew Research Center. The latest New York Times/CBS poll released in late March finds that more than two-thirds of Americans think that the United States should no longer be at war in Afghanistan — a 16 percentage point increase from the polling just four months earlier. Negative impressions of the U.S.’ longest war are growing among Republicans as well as Democrats, although the two parties have differing approaches to the specific timeline for the withdrawal of American troops. In fact, Republicans turned dramatically against the war in recent months, with public opinion polls reporting that the majority of Republican voters now say that the Afghanistan war is not worth fighting.
RECENT INSTABILITY IN THE REGION: The current strategic agreement comes after several months of tension in Afghanistan. In late February, U.S. troops’ inadvertent burning of Qurans sparked mass protests and violence against NATO forces across the country. March brought a string of increased attacks from Afghan forces against their purported U.S. allies, as well as the AWOL U.S. soldier who allegedly opened fire on Afghan civilians and killed 17 innocent citizens. And just two hours after Obama left Afghanistan last night, a suicide bomb attack killed seven Afghans in Kabul — the Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was intended to send Obama the message that Taliban insurgents oppose the U.S.’ strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and urge U.S. troops to withdraw immediately.
ROMNEY’S APPROACH TO AFGHANISTAN STILL UNCLEAR: What remains to be seen, however, is where exactly the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lands on the U.S.’ policy toward Afghanistan. Romney has avoided saying exactly what he thinks on the issue, neglecting to offer how his foreign policy approach would specifically differ from the President’s and often even contradicting himself when he speaks on a timeline for withdrawal. Romney has criticized the Obama administration for engaging in negotiations with the Taliban and using the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden to “politicize” the war, but appears to be backing off after Obama’s speech — last night, Romney’s campaign released a mild-mannered press release welcoming Obama’s comments from Afghanistan.
A Way Forward For U.S.-Afghanistan Relations: Easier Said Than Done
Although Obama is thankfully nuanced in his approach to Afghanistan, policy analysts warn that the devil is in the details. In two weeks, NATO security councils will convene in Chicago to discuss the U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement at length. There is much more to be done as the Obama administration moves toward a comprehensive, long-term strategy for transitioning power over to the Afghan government and holding elections in 2014. The president has set the course in the right direction, but the hard work is just beginning.
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