But Obama, making a virtue of necessity fueled by budget constraints, a restive Congress and faltering public support, has now declared those areas sufficiently stabilized to begin lowering the U.S. profile there.
“We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength,” he said Wednesday night.
The same cannot be said of the Afghan east, where the fight is more about killing declared enemies than pacifying broad swaths of the population in a nation long defined by instability.
Although the east has been a secondary focus of U.S. attention compared with the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, some of the insurgency’s most vicious fighters, along with the forces most directly tied to al-Qaeda, hold sway in the rugged eastern mountain valleys and have made increasing inroads from their havens in Pakistan, which borders these provinces.
The east, one military official said, has always presented a “tougher kinetic fight” than the south.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, CIA operations against al-Qaeda senior figures and hideouts have become more difficult as U.S.-Pakistani relations have worsened following the U.S. commando raid last month that killed Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad compound.
“It is a different fight, and it has been for some period of time,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has urged a greater focus on eastern Afghanistan and on Pakistan.
“The president talks about [insurgent] sanctuaries,” Kerry said in an interview after Obama’s address. “That is where almost all the mischief comes from. If we can change that equation . . . that is the best opportunity to protect what we have gained in Afghanistan.”
Although the administration has denied any shift in the strategy that Obama announced in December 2009, a renewed focus on the east will amount to a de facto change in the balance between the counterinsurgency tactics that have been central to the southern mission and the targeted counterterrorism that has marked U.S. operations in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The switch has long been advocated by many within the White House, including Vice President Biden.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the outgoing coalition commander in Afghanistan, was already planning an increase in forces in the eastern provinces, although he had hoped to be able to shift them from the south without an early decrease in the overall number of U.S. troops.
One of the reasons Obama has had difficulty in sustaining support for his Afghan strategy has been the absence of al-Qaeda from the southern battlefields, which has raised questions about why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan. But if the administration identifies the fight more directly with the battles in the east and in Pakistan, the case for the war is likely to be easier to make.