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The difficult politics of Afghanistan

at 06:30 AM ET, 06/22/2011


President Obama will announce his decision on the next step for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan on Wednesday(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
President Obama will announce his plans regarding the depth and timing of U.S. troop drawdowns in Afghanistan on Wednesday night, a decision fraught with political peril for the incumbent.

Reports of the extent of the drawdown flew around Washington Tuesday but seemed to settle on the idea that Obama would call for 10,000 U.S. troops to be removed from the country by the end of the year.

That pronouncement will come even as a majority of the American public favors removing all troops as quickly as possible, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.

Fully 56 percent of those tested said they favored removing the troops as quickly as possible, the first time Pew has shown a majority in favor of that option. (Among political independents, a coveted voting bloc, support for a rapid pullout of all troops is at 57 percent. )

The trend line is equally illuminating; as recently as June 2010, just 40 percent backed the idea of American troops leaving Afghanistan as soon as possible.

What those numbers mean is that the drumbeat to bring the troops home is loud and will only grow louder the longer the American military remains in Afghanistan.

Politically then, the smartest thing for Obama to do is immediately bring home as many troops as possible. But, there is little expectation that Obama will take that course — and even the removal of 10,000 troops would be more aggressive than some of his military commanders would prefer.

Expect Obama to frame whatever decision he has reached on troop withdrawals in the context of “promises made, promises kept,” since, when he announced the 30,000-troop surge in 2009, he vowed to begin the drawdown in 2011.

”The president identified in December of 2009 — made the commitment that forces would begin to draw down in July of 2011. He is keeping that commitment,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.

The question Obama and his political team must grapple with is whether the American public think his Afghanistan announcement is a big enough step to remove the country from a war that most people don’t support.

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted earlier this month, just more than one in three (36 percent) people said they favored the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

That same poll showed 39 percent favoring withdrawing all of the troops, while 35 percent preferred the withdrawal of some troops. Just 6 percent said they wanted more troops put into the country.

What those polls don’t test is what “some” troops means. And, of course, the definition of “some” lies in the eye of the beholder. Hence the difficulty of finding a number that satisfies both military commanders on the ground and shows a public weary of the war that an end is near.

One bit of solace for Obama is that what to do next in Afghanistan is proving politically tricky for the Republicans hoping to oust him too.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who announced his presidential bid on Tuesday, has openly questioned whether the cost of the Afghanistan war is worth it, and even former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, said in last week’s debate that “our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.”

Those comments have drawn strong rebukes from the likes of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee; “I wish that candidate Romney and all the others would sit down with General (David) Petraeus and understand how this counter-insurgency is working and succeeding,” McCain said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week”.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty appeared to come down on McCain’s side on Tuesday, striking a hawkish tone as he criticized the presidential field’s drift toward isolationism.

The politics of the war in Afghanistan are among the trickiest of any issue on the national radar. Expect most politicians to tread lightly in the aftermath of Obama’s decision.

Abortion pledge dogs Romney, Huntsman: Both Huntsman and Romney are getting hit over the fact that they haven’t signed the Susan B. Anthony List anti-abortion pledge.

On Tuesday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Romney for making “excuses” for not signing the pledge. “I thought it was a pretty clear-cut pledge,” Gingrich said. (Romney’s team has said the pledge is too broad when it comes to appointees to a new administration.)

Meanwhile, former senator Rick Santorum hit recently minted candidate Huntsman for not signing the pledge in a web video mocking the announcement teasers from the Huntsman campaign, which feature a motocross rider traveling through the desert.

Others have taken Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) speech at the Republican Leadership Conference this past weekend urging conservatives not to apologize for their opposition to abortion as an opening salvo on the issue.

What’s clear is that the SBA List pledge could emerge as a real issue, and right now it’s an easy hit on the two more moderate frontrunners in the field.

Patriot Day sends $1.5 million to 10 vulnerable Republicans: The National Republican Congressional Committee is holding its first Patriot Day of the 2012 election cycle today, distributing $1.5 million total to 10 of the most vulnerable incumbent Republicans in the House.

The first round of Patriots is comprised of Reps. Tom Latham (Iowa), Allen West (Fla.), Sean Duffy (Wis.), Pat Meehan (Pa.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Charlie Bass (N.H.), Frank Guinta (N.H.), Quico Canseco (Texas) and Joe Heck (Nev.).

The event is being hosted by NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions, NRCC Vice Chairman Greg Walden, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling.

PCCC passes $3 million mark: The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group that has pressured the White House and gone after both Republicans and conservative Democrats, has raised $3 million on the website ActBlue since launching in 2009 — an indicator of the group’s continuing influence.

The group took in 190,000 donations on the Democratic fundraising website, with an average contribution of $15. The PCCC also raised about $1 million directly for various candidates in 2010. They are hoping to raise between $3 million and $5 million for campaigns in 2012; so far they have raised $1 million for next year.

Fixbits:

Tim Pawlenty has a new name for “Obamneycare” — “Robamacare.”

Details are out on Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) presidential rollout, which will take place Monday in Waterloo, Iowa.

In the same interview where Gingrich attacked Romney, he praised Perry.

Huntsman, who favors civil unions for gays and lesbians, said he would “respect” New York’s gay marriage law if the state passes one.

Huntsman brings his family almost everywhere.

Santorum suggests Attorney General Eric Holder is eating mushrooms. Yes, the hallucinogenic kind.

Romney commits to six debates, including the one in Iowa two days before the straw poll, but he still won’t participate in a debate in Nevada next month.

Taking a cue from the Obama Administration, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lends a “death hug” to Huntsman, saying he prefers the former Utah governor to Romney.

Perry campaigns for Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R), who is set to challenge Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

Former Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams (R) officially switches from running for Senate to the newly created 33rd congressional district.

For the record, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean isn’t encouraging anybody to primary Obama.

Must-reads:

Let’s keep talking about redistricting” — Micah Cohen, New York Times

Nobody’s candidate” — Dave Weigel, Slate

Bachmann will have to fight to state at the top tier” — Luisita Lopez Torregrossa, New York Times

 
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