President Obama will arrive in Chicago this weekend to participate in a charade that has one not-so-hidden goal: Get the hell out of Afghanistan.
After Obama made what many around him now privately acknowledge was a mistake to escalate the conflict three years ago — essentially creating a new war of his own, tripling the size of U.S. forces after he caved under intense pressure from the Pentagon — the White House has been desperately searching for a way out. Ideally, one that couldn’t be spun as a full on retreat.
The administration didn’t find it at the last NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, two years ago. The U.S. still had to pretend they were in it for the next decade. There, NATO Secretary General Anders Foghs Rasmussen boldly committed the U.S. and Europe beyond 2014. “One thing must be very clear: NATO is in this for the long term,” he told reporters at the time.
Today, the calculus has changed completely, while the strategy’s failure is nearly impossible to deny. Bin Laden’s killing — which, for what it’s worth, had zero relationship to the counterinsurgency plan we adopted — gave Obama the political cover to pull it off. Finally, Obama could overrule his generals (which he did a month after the Osama raid) whose plan called for 130,000 troops to stay for years more to come.
"People are ready to see the war be wound down,” says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. “They don’t really understand. It’s been ten years, Bin Laden is gone, what exactly are we there for again?”
By rarely speaking about the war publicly — Obama has given only four major addresses on Afghanistan, or, about one speech for every 484 soldiers killed — the president allowed the horrible news to fill the void. The public was treated to one fiasco, embarrassment, or atrocity after the other, culminating with a crescendo of upsetting events this year that seemed to solidify public opinion against the fight. (The Koran burning, urinating on the Taliban, the massacre of 17 civilians, posing with dead body photos…)
With almost 70 percent of the public now against it, the war became politically safe enough to quit. "Since [the majority of] Americans neither care nor understand what the hell we've done there or in Iraq, he can do as he likes,” says Colonel Douglas MacGregror, a retired officer and influential military analyst. “We are at the beginning of turning inward for ten years.”
One thousand nine hundred and fifty six NATO soldiers have been killed since President Obama decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan in 2009, the majority of them American. That’s almost double the number of soldiers who’d been killed in the previous eight years of the conflict. About 362 billion U.S. tax dollars, likely to hit half a trillion the next two years, has been blown in the wastelands of Helmand and Kandahar and Kabul.
Now he's returning to the city where he made his political career with an anti-war speech in 2002 to settle in behind barriers and riot police for a careful set piece. The summit — which will be held this Sunday and Monday — will be a diplomatic show to make us forget all of the old, high expectations and the combat losses. Our NATO allies will pretend to be behind us, while they’ve been quietly jumping off the ship all along.
France’s new president, Francois Hollande, plans to deliver a message to Obama that the French will be out by the end of 2012, not 2013. The Dutch are long gone. The Canadians have only 508 troopers left. The only reason any of them are still around, as one U.S. military official once told me, is to maintain “the alliance,” not because of any real commitment to the war. (In Europe, the war is even more unpopular than here.)
During the summit, U.S. and NATO officials will dazzle us with numbers and agreements, both mostly meaningless. The numbers are going to chart the rapid growth of the Afghan Army and police force — more than 325,000 by October of this year — and ignore that the effort, costing us $11 billion dollar a year, has been one of the biggest embarrassments of the mission. They’ll leave out how the security forces are ethnically segregated; how Afghan soldiers have been killing NATO trainers at an alarmingly high rate (20 murders this year so far; over 70 since 2008); and the high rate of drug addiction and desertion.
We’ll hear that 75 percent of the country will soon be turned over to Afghan control who are supposedly “in the lead” — a strange statistic, as the reality is that most of the country had been under some degree of Afghan control for years. As for the long term deals: the appetite to keep supporting the corrupt Karzai regime with billions of dollars in aid is likely to disappear pretty quickly once Americans are no longer stuck there.
Besides claiming strong Afghan security forces and a decimated Al Qaeda, the Obama administration claims stopping the Taliban’s momentum as another win. But earlier this month, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Mike Rogers both said the Taliban was stronger than before the surge. This was in direct contradiction to both the White House and Pentagon spin.
Talk of any significant long-term presence has been abandoned — as one Obama administration official put it, there will be only a “very small footprint” after 2014. (Probably around 15,000 Americans in counterterrorism and training roles.)
The peace negotiations that could have started three years ago have now finally begun in earnest. But not with us in a stronger negotiating position, as was the plan. The hardliners with the Taliban — and the hardliners within the Republican party — will do their best to scuttle any peace talks. That being said, everyone is more or less sick of this war — Afghans and Americans alike — and hawks on Capitol Hill and in the Quetta Shurra alike are likely to lose this debate.
To the Obama camp’s credit, however, the policy they’re promoting is set on ending the war. (Romney’s position is typically vague — he’s said he’d just follow the generals' advice, which means fighting for another decade or so.) "The American people are ready not to be at war," one Obama official tells me. "It's been a long ten years — more than ten years."
Ending a war is an opportune position for a Democratic president to take during an election year, as Obama learned four years ago. Already the campaign has hit the occasional anti-war notes, reminiscent of the 2008 songbook, when Iraq was the war to be against. Last month, Team Obama sent out a fundraising email where the president criticized Romney’s desire for “endless war.” Drawdown from Afghanistan, like Iraq, will be deployed as an effective fundraising tool.
The tragedy here, however, is not so much that the strategy didn’t work, it’s that it never had a chance of working. Obama and many of his advisors knew or suspected this all along. The summit in Chicago will be the latest reminder of a very unfortunate mistake.