In a fundamental shift from nearly two years of aggressive counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, President Obama announced Wednesday that the United States would immediately withdraw 10,000 of its troops from the country, and said that the remaining 20,000 troops from last year’s “surge” would return home by next summer. “The tide of war is receding,” Obama said, adding that the U.S. was “meeting our goals” in Afghanistan. He also acknowledged that American forces would concede some of their more ambitious reconstruction plans in the country, declaring, “We won’t try to make Afghanistan a perfect place.”
The speech also anticipated, somewhat obliquely, what will likely be the dominant theme of the 2012 presidential campaign: “nation-building here at home,” as Obama put it. That remark echoed criticisms lodged by some of Obama’s Republican rivals, particularly former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has argued that America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have been too costly, and that America’s military commitments abroad have come at the expense of its economic strength at home.
For the most part, however, the speech elicited only a muted response from the Republican presidential candidates, and showcased the fractures within the party on America’s foreign policy. With the exception of Huntsman, who served as the president’s envoy to China until April, the Republican hopefuls collectively have only limited foreign policy experience, and have been reluctant to make American interventionism a major part of the campaign. They plan instead to focus laser-like on the economy and government spending, which are by far the most important issues among voters of all political affiliations, especially conservatives. As Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, put it in an interview: “Wars have faded from the front lines of Americans’ consciousness.”
Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has staked out the most hawkish position on the Afghan war. In an appearance on Fox News Wednesday, he called Obama’s decision “a grave mistake” and said withdrawing 30,000 troops from the country would leave Afghanistan vulnerable to back-sliding. Pawlenty sided with Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of American forces in Afghanistan who has reportedly advocated for a slower withdrawal of troops. American forces have succeeded in clearing some of the most volatile regions of the country of insurgents, officials say, but the Afghan security forces remain largely unprepared to consolidate those gains.
“I thought his speech tonight was deeply concerning, and look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war ‘responsibly.’ When America goes to war, America needs to win,” Pawlenty said. “We need to close out the war successfully, and what that means now is not nation-building, but it means follow General Petraeus’s advice and get those security forces built up to the point where they can pick up the slack as we draw down.”
Huntsman, meanwhile, has taken a starkly different approach, advocating for a rapid withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and criticizing Obama for leaving another 70,000 in the country until the U.S. is ready to transfer power to Afghan forces in 2014. “With America mired in three expensive conflicts, we have a generational opportunity to reset our position in the world in a way that makes sense for our security as well as our budget,” Huntsman said in a statement.
The former diplomat has attempted to position himself as the only Republican candidate with serious foreign policy credentials and as part of that effort has sought to tie America’s military adventurism to its economic strength overall. His argument, in part, is that we can no longer afford the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that the “asymmetrical” nature of the terrorist threat does not require a significant military presence in those countries.
“Now it is time we move to a focused counterterror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight,” Huntsman said. “We need a safe but rapid withdrawal which encourages Afghans to assume responsibility, while leaving in place a strong counterintelligence and special forces effort proportionate to the threat. The war on terror is being fought against a global enemy, and it is critical that we have the resources to fight them wherever they’re found.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has sought perhaps more than any other Republican to cast himself as the candidate with a singular focus on creating jobs, had a milder reaction to Obama’s announcement. Of the major candidates he issued the shortest and least detailed statement, saying, “We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics.”
The reluctance to attack Obama on his national security policy makes political sense, given that Americans have largely favorable views of the president’s handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially after the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. But the relentless focus on jobs and the economy — including by Obama — has deprived the campaign of a substantive exchange on other issues important to U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, aside from the number of troops there.
The Republican candidates have been mum, for example, on reconciliation talks with the Taliban, the endemic corruption within President Hamid Karzai’s government and the increasingly strained American relationship with Pakistan, which will now play an even more critical role in Afghanistan as the U.S. winds down its military commitments and intensifies its clandestine counter-terror operations.
Given the current political climate, it’s unlikely those issues will ever be discussed in the context of the presidential campaign.
Update, June 24: The U.S. plans to withdraw an additional 20,000 troops by next summer, not by the end of the year, as originally stated.