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Analysis: Obama's troop withdrawals from Afghanistan reflect domestic pressures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - WASHINGTON - With public impatience growing, political support fracturing and economic news worsening, President Barack Obama tried to put a positive spin on a pressurized compromise Wednesday evening when he announced the beginning of the end of the nearly decade-old U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

Ordering the departure of 10,000 American troops by year's end and the drawdown of another 23,000 by the following summer, Obama expressed confidence that the Afghanistan "surge" he first outlined at a West Point speech in December 2009 had blocked the Taliban opposition from retaking major parts of the country.

The president's compromise plan represents a faster withdrawal than some military leaders and their congressional allies wanted, but falls short of the pace that many Democratic leaders and some neo-isolationist Republicans had advocated in recent weeks -- in part because of deepening worries about the cost of U.S. military ventures around the globe at a time of economic stress at home.

Expressing that concern, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that withdrawing fewer than 15,000 troops this year sends "the wrong message to the American people, who really want us to make significant reductions in our presence because it's a huge cost."

The key word is cost, for -- when nation-building and other civilian aid is taken into account -- the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, including $119 billion this year alone. And that assessment does not include the human toll, with more than 1,500 U.S. military personnel killed and 12,000 wounded so far. For decades to come, the nation will bear the costs of caring for some of those disabled soldiers in veterans' facilities.

The continued expenditures in Afghanistan and Iraq -- as well as this nation's more recent participation in the NATO-led strikes against Libya's government forces -- are coming at a time when U.S. unemployment hovers at an unacceptable 9 percent, housing prices continue to suffer, the price of gasoline remains high, transportation infrastructure is crumbling, and cities and states across the country are having trouble keeping solvent.

Indeed, Obama's Afghanistan speech was delivered on the same day that the Federal Reserve downgraded its outlook on the nation's economy. Also on Wednesday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warned -- as the White House and congressional leaders try to reach a debt-ceiling deal to curb runaway deficits -- that the already faltering economic recovery could be hurt by sharp spending cuts or tax hikes that would take effect quickly.

This week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors -- representing cities across the country that have been hurt by cutbacks in federal programs -- approved a resolution calling for an early end to the nation's military roles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The mayors, pointing out that local governments nationwide were having to lay off tens of thousands of employees every month, called on Congress to redirect some of its Pentagon spending towards mor important domestic programs.

"The question the president faces -- we all face -- is quite simple: Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan?" asked U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in a Senate speech. "In light of our nation's fiscal peril, we cannot do both." At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote in a recent oped that "our current expansive foreign policies are no longer fiscally possible to sustain."

In passing its Afghanistan and Iraq resolution, the mayors' conference opted to comment overtly on a foreign policy issue for the first time since the early 1970s, when the organization called for an end to the Vietnam War. That conflict involved many more U.S. troops and caused much sharper political divisions in American society, but the Afghanistan war is rivaling Vietnam in terms of its longevity.

Some analysts already refer to the Afghanistan war, which started on Oct. 7, 2001 -- as America's longest war. It surpassed the length of the nation's military campaigns in World War I and II and has lasted longer than one definition of the Vietnam war -- from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 to the American withdrawal in 1973. But, in reality, the American military first got involved in Vietnam in the late 1950s, although full combat units were not deployed there until 1965. About 58,220 U.S. service members died in the Vietnam war.

Declare Victory and Withdraw?

Back in 1966, then-Sen. George Aikin, R-Vt., suggested that President Lyndon Johnson extricate the nation quickly and honorably from the Vietnam morass with a "declare victory and withdraw" approach -- even though there was little hope for a decisive victory. Johnson ignored the advice, withdrew his candidacy for re-election, and the war dragged on for another seven years.

Today, White House officials say, there are good reasons it would be feasible to declare victory in Afghanistan. After all, as the president pointed out, the recent deaths of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders provide ample evidence that U.S. forces had degraded the terrorist group. And the war in Afghanistan had begun -- a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that toppled the World Trade towers and damaged the Pentagon -- as an effort to destroy al-Qaida's bases and eliminate Afghanistan as a safe haven for bin Laden and his organization.

Speaking shortly before Obama's speech, a senior administration official said "we believe the president is making this decision tonight from a position of success and strength. He, of course, said in December of 2009 that he would begin reductions in U.S. troops in July 2011, and he's going to keep that commitment."

While there will be some flexibility in the timing, the official said, "By next summer the full 33,000 troops associated with the surge will be out of Afghanistan."  After the withdrawals between now and September 2012, officials said, about 68,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan -- but that number will be gradually drawn down between then and 2014, the year of "full transition" to the Afghans.

But will the pullout of 33,000 U.S. troops by next summer give the Taliban and al-Qaida an opportunity to retrench in parts of Afghanistan? "It is certainly the view of the people who have been prosecuting this effort from the administration that this is not going to increase the threat," said another senior administration official. He added that "we haven't seen a terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for the past seven or eight years" -- with "50, 75 or so al-Qaida types" embedded in Taliban units, but focused entirely on operations within Afghanistan.

"The threat has come from Pakistan over the past half-dozen years or so, and longer. And what we've been able to do, particularly over the last year . . . is to degrade al-Qaida's core capabilities significantly."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.