In his speech to the nation Wednesday night, President Barack Obama announced his plans to withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the summer of 2012, just a few months before November's presidential election. This will bring an end to Obama's surge strategy but it is unlikely to mollify a growing war weariness among the American electorate.
In addressing a growingly skeptical American public the president sounded both optimistic and realistic. At one point he said, "the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance." But he tempered his hope by saying, "huge challenges remain. This is the beginning -- but not the end -- of our effort to wind down this war." The president's decision would leave 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan to continue the already decade-long war at least until 2014, assuming Afghanistan's forces will be able to take over.
The war in Afghanistan is costing U.S. taxpayers $2 billion a week, and more than 1,500 American soldiers have died there since 2001. Al Qaeda terrorists have been driven out of the country, and hostile Tailiban forces number perhaps 20,000 fighters. The Taliban have been degraded in some areas, but not defeated.
President Obama is facing criticism from hawks, such as Arizona Republican Senator John McCain who says that the withdrawal is too swift and an "unnecessary risk." South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham wrote a statement on Twitter, "We've undercut a strategy that was working." And House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, expressed his concern; "We are in a very precarious place in Afghanistan right now. It seems the President is trying to find a political solution with a military component to it, when it needs to be the other way around."
The president is rolling the dice with this decision. The Americans have made progress in Afghanistan since Obama's surge, but the central government is frail and corrupt, and its president, Hamid Karsai, is unpopular and unpredictable. Afghanistan's military now numbers about 300,000, but it is unclear whether they can be molded into an effective and truly reliable fighting force. And due to the country's tribal nature creating a strong central government is highly unlikely. All of this uncertainty makes it difficult to see any light in the distance.
America is currently engaged in two and one-half wars that have already cost more than $1 trillion. Its military commitment in Iraq is slowly winding down but U.S. troops will still be there for the near term. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead but the terrorist group has scattered to Yemen and other countries. And U.S. air forces are currently involved in a NATO effort to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi but he remains in power. The president says "the tide of war is receding," but it is still a flood.
At one point in his speech the president sounded like candidate Obama. "Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource -- our people," he said, "while living within our means...it is time to focus on nation building here at home." But this will be hard to do while maintaining the huge costs of war and dealing with America's enormous deficits.
So it appears that the president, as he so often does, is steering a middle course in confronting the extremely complex problem of Afghanistan. But in a year's time will the American public, already struggling with an anemic economic recovery, high unemployment and a weak housing market, be satisfied with the president's course? Or will a weary electorate choose another course?