The Beginning of the End in Afghanistan

If anyone was expecting President Obama to spike the proverbial football during his address this evening from Afghanistan, they were sorely disappointed. In a sober, 11 minute message, Obama retraced the path that brought the United States to Afghanistan, and outlined the next two years of American policy in the country.

First, he noted the extent to which the United States had mostly achieved its military goals in the country—“One year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” the president said. “The goal I set—to defeat Al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.” From there, he announced a strategic partnership with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that would begin the process of withdrawal for American troops, leading to their complete departure in 2014. Between now and then, the United States—with the help of its NATO allies—would transition responsibility for security to Afghan troops, and step back into a more limited role of training and counterterrorism.

Insofar that they were present, domestic political concerns came in the form of pushback against the criticism—from Mitt Romney and others—that the administration had erred in setting a deadline for withdrawing troops, since the Taliban would then be able to wait out the United States, and avoid concessions. In explaining his decision to set a timetable, Obama noted the extent to which the lack of a timeline had lengthened our time in the country, and robbed our forces of clear strategic aims:

"[O]ur goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that. Afghans want to fully assert their sovereignty and build a lasting peace. That requires a clear timeline to wind down the war.

As for the politics of this, it’s hard to say for certain how they will play out. The war in Afghanistan isn’t over, but it’s begun to wind down. Troops will come home, and given the degree to which the war is unpopular, it’s possible that Obama will receive a political boost from tonight’s move. At the same time, voters are most concerned with the economy, and while foreign policy successes don’t hurt, it’s not clear that they help either.

If anything, the beginning of the end in Afghanistan will help Obama build his “leadership” case against Mitt Romney. With the killing of bin Laden, the intervention in Libya, and the gradual end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has the resume he needs to present himself as a strong and competent manager of the country’s foreign affairs, which in turn, might improve perceptions of his economic management. What’s more, this provides a clear contrast with Romney, who at varying times in the last three years, has opposed each of these moves. At the end of the day, Obama will be able to pose a simple question to the American public—“Do you want a president who has brought peace, security, and good relations with our allies, or do you want a president who has called for extending our wars, and starting new ones?”