Obama Looking for Political Sweet Spot on Afghanistan

Politics Dictate Obama’s Afghan Reboot

“For every Taliban fighter we kill, buy off or convert, another one will take his place, and more and more will stand up to fight an enemy that is perceived as infidels… I an not certain a counterinsurgency plan is anything but counterproductive… We are spending $10 billion a month on a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that does not have a clear path to a definable victory.”

-- Floor speech by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., calling for president Obama to “bring our men and women home.”

President Obama went for a Goldilocks strategy when he established the current U.S. program for the Afghan war in December 2009. And he seems bound to do the same thing in undoing his previous decree when he delivers a war policy speech on Wednesday.

Eighteen months ago, following a yearlong deliberation, Obama rejected a plan for a smaller military footprint and an end to nation building backed by Vice President Biden and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. He also rejected a Pentagon-backed plan for an indefinite, 45,000-troop surge.

Obama instead went with a 30,000-troop escalation coupled with a deadline (now expired) and a concurrent surge in diplomatic aid and nation building. Obama also embraced from the Biden/Eikenberry plan the concept of escalating the secret war in Pakistan in an effort to root out the Taliban leadership. Obama went with a modified version of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plan.

The results have been mixed.

The military has had success in clearing and holding big swaths of the Taliban homeland in the south and has badly disrupted the chain of command among the insurgents via drone strikes against Pakistani holdouts. An expanded capacity for commando raids also brought SEAL Team Six to Usama bin Laden’s bedroom door.

But there is no sign that the kind of civil society that has emerged from the U.S.-led surge in Iraq is anywhere in the offing for the Afghans. With no history of central government, no educated middle class, endemic corruption and a larger, more rugged landscape than Iraq, Afghanistan has defied the president and Clinton’s efforts for a civilian awakening and nation building. Obama’s plan to bring neighboring nations – including Russia and Iran – into an effort to stabilize Afghanistan has been a fizzle.

And in Pakistan, the drone war and commando raids have brought in some high-value scalps, particularly the mangy one belonging to bin Laden. But the success has come amid the larger presence of U.S. diplomats and operatives inside the radicalizing, nuclear-armed nation of 170 million Muslims.

Despite billions in aid to Islamabad, the U.S. gets minimal cooperation from the Pakistanis and the constant threat of an Islamist takeover or a new alliance with China. Pressures for reform outlined in the Obama/Clinton plan have come to little, as has what Obama said would be a revival of the peace process between Pakistan and India.

Given these struggles and their cost, there is a growing movement in both parties to now scrap the nation-building business (counterinsurgency) and focus on killing terrorists (counterterrorism).

The two main moderates in the Republican presidential field, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, have both called for an end to the war as currently constituted and none in the GOP 2012 field have lately been heard quoting JFK about paying any price or bearing any burden when it comes to Afghanistan. The most conservative wing of the party has instead been advocating more of a Reaganite “peace through strength” approach and less of Secretary Clinton’s “smart power.”

Democrats, who thought they were getting an anti-war president, are mostly just desperate for the war to be over. The same folks who derided President George W. Bush for building roads and schools in Iraq when America’s infrastructure was crumbling have watched in muted shock as Obama implemented a steroidal version of Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” and expanded the use of covert warfare.

There are still some very influential proponents of that doctrine on the left and the right, but the status quo is not politically sustainable.

Obama has also seen how hard withdrawal really is. Despite all of the administration’s back patting over the withdrawal of “the last combat brigade” from Iraq, U.S. troops are still being killed there and the death toll is expected to rise as the deadline for actual withdrawal approaches at the end of this year.

The emerging approach, outlined by National Journal’s Marc Ambinder today, is for the current troop surge to be allowed to melt away by regular troop rotations over the next 18 months, leaving the U.S. with about 70,000 troops in Afghanistan.

That would likely mean a garrison force centered around protecting Kabul and the supply line that flows through Bagram Airfield, but it would also give the troops on the front line this summer and the next one to kill Taliban fighters.

This plan is said to come from David Petraeus, the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has accepted Obama’s offer to head the CIA, and, by extension, the covert war in Pakistan. This amounts to the second offer from Petraeus, to whom an opening bid of a 10,000-troop drawdown was previously attributed.

But Obama has a political desire to show his base that he is not a tool of the Pentagon so the likely reduction will likely be a bit larger than what Petraeus is said to be proposing. It might be nice, for example, if Obama could say by Election Day that there were fewer troops in Afghanistan than when he took office. Maybe 30,001.

Whatever the numbers mentioned (if Obama uses any specifics at all on Wednesday) the focus from the president will be on his desire to dial back the nation-building approach, the least popular part of the effort. To guard against charges of faint-heartedness Obama will also likely talk about how the SEALs killed bin laden and his desire to see similar raids conducted against other baddies.

It may not be enough to satisfy critics on the left and right and certainly won’t help the disappointed liberal activists of 2008 rediscover their previous ardor, but the president can’t afford to give in to their desires for a dramatic drawdown. He will, as he has attempted on the economy, show that things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

Can Libya Hawks in Congress Buy Enough Time for NATO to Finish Off Qaddafi?


-- The "imminent danger pay" pay for U.S. service members deployed in the Libyan civil war, even though the Obama administration maintains that the military is not engaged in “hostilities.”

FOX News colleague Trish Turner says that Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., are expected this week to offer a resolution in the Senate to authorize American involvement in the Libya war.

McCain, Kerry and other war backers in Congress have been pleading with President Obama to seek congressional authorization for the three-month old American involvement in the stalemated civil war. The president has refused, saying that the U.S. involvement is not sufficient to merit congressional authorization.

The fear among the congressional hawks is that if Obama doesn’t get authorization soon, lawmakers, who mostly believe that the president is in violation of the War Powers Resolution that has governed presidential prerogatives on making war since 1973, will pull the plug on the conflict entirely.

The administration has refused to oblige its congressional allies on the war. Not only does Obama reject congressional authority on the grounds of the limited scope of the American strikes and United Nations’ and Arab League’s authorizations, but he also doesn’t want to lose a vote.

It’s one thing to have a constitutional crisis in theory, it’s another thing to have the real deal. But McCain, Kerry and the other hawks must believe that they can pull off some kind of authorization, or at least keep any final resolution bottled up in the Senate for a few more weeks while the non-hostile, non-kinetic bombing raids continue.

Remember also that if Congress yanks funding for the war, the enfeebled European NATO members would be unable to carry the burden alone, meaning a stinging defeat for the 60-year-old alliance.

That could also mean the end of NATO logistical help in Afghanistan at the exact moment that Obama is looking to start his drawdown ahead of the heat of the election season.

Team Huntsman Tries to Update McCain Strategy

“He was encouraging on health care. He was encouraging on the whole range of issues. He was a little quizzical about what was going on in his own party. And you got the strong sense that he was going to wait until 2016 for the storm to blow over."

-- David Axelrod on “State of the Union” discussing former China Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s role in the Obama administration

Imagine if John McCain had run for president in 2000 not with beer distributorship money, but multi-national chemical company money.

That’s what advisers to former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman have envisioned with their candidate – a maverick backed up with a multi-billion dollar fortune.

Huntsman’s rollout today is designed to highlight his two greatest putative political strengths.

First is his the ability to woo liberal independents into New Hampshire’s open Republican primary and pull off the kind of upset that McCain did in 2000 over frontrunning George W. Bush. That’s why the candidate is heading to New Hampshire for the second leg of his multi-stop announcement.

Second is his massive family fortune. That’s why Huntsman is doing a glitzy announcement beside the Statue of Liberty and then jetting off to New Hampshire. He is also building high-priced operations in South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere. The message is that he has the money to endure the wrath of the conservative base and the GOP establishment in a way that McCain could not.

For McCainiac turned Huntsman adviser John Weaver, this is a chance to run the campaign that McCain refused to run in his second try in 2008: big money, no ideological orthodoxies and no kissing up to the conservative base.

What makes those advantages even greater for Huntsman is the fact that the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has nothing like the broad support and establishment blessing that Bush had back in the day.

Plus, Huntsman’s huge fortune helps undercut one of Romney’s central arguments – that only he can raise the money needed to slow the Obama campaign juggernaut.

As Mark Knoller of CBS News pointed out, with two events Monday night, Obama has held 30 fundraisers to this point in his term, compared to three held by Bush at this point in his first term.

Huntsman’s candidacy has been an object of fascination only to Washington reporters with a fetish for apostate Republicans and inside the Obama administration itself. Compared to the intense interest given to socially conservative Rick Perry and fiscal hawk Chris Christie, moderate, mavericky Huntsman has been a non-factor with the GOP base.

A major difference between 2000 and now, though, is that the Republican Party is far more conservative and far less centralized in its power. The Tea Party movement and the anger at Washington that pervades the party has diminished the appetite for a centrist like Huntsman.

Today, he begins to find out what happens when he tries to install McCain 2.0 with a very different Republican electorate.

While it looks unlikely that Huntsman can evade the Republican base any better than McCain could in 2000, if he’s serious about dumping big money in the race, he will certainly cause plenty of problems for Romney in New Hampshire and Florida.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“If I could make one remark on the idea of signing a pledge in general -- every candidate ought to be frame a major issue with his own words.

That's what is wrong with a pledge. It's written by others and it constrains you. That's why even pledges on taxes are not useful. You ought to say what you want. Somebody else writes it, it can be misinterpreted. That's why I think that demanding that a Republican adhere to a pledge is not always wise.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”