President Obama made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, seeking to proclaim a new turning point in the overwhelmingly unpopular conflict.
With two-thirds of the public expressing public opposition to the war and supporting an immediate withdrawal, Obama faces risks in highlighting the war in Afghanistan and giving the country what amounted to a pep rally to describe in glowing terms the American mission there.
The president jetted off to Kabul in order to affirm a new “strategic partnership agreement” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As the current form of “combat operations” is gradually scaled back in deference to the 2014 withdrawal date for U.S. troops, the new pact signed with the Afghan government ensures a pervasive American presence in and around the country for at least another decade.
While promises were made and carefully worded pacts were signed, nearly 100,000 American troops remain on the ground in Afghanistan. They are still handling almost all security responsibilities and struggling to maintain control over a country were violence has surged even as more U.S. forces have been committed to the war.
Obama put a brazenly positive spin on the situation as he vaguely described the future plans for a war most Americans do not want to continue. In a speech broadcast in primetime back in the U.S., the public was told that opposition to the war is unpatriotic, and that America must “finish the job” in Afghanistan “responsibly” before handing over security duties to the Afghans.
In the speech, beamed back to prime-time evening audiences in the US, the president said that at the forthcoming Nato summit, to be held in Chicago later this month, the alliance would “set a goal for Afghan forces to be in the lead for combat operations across the country next year”.
Nato has already committed to withdrawing from combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“I will not keep Americans in harm’s way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security,” Mr Obama said. “But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan, and end this war responsibly.”
About 23,000 of the 88,000 US troops currently in the country are expected to leave Afghanistan by the summer, with all US and Nato combat troops out by the end of 2014.
“It is time to renew America,” Mr Obama said towards the end of his remarks.
“My fellow Americans, we have travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.
The details of the strategic agreement that President Obama signed in Kabul paints a picture of direct American involvement in day-to-day operations in Afghanistan for years into the future, at least. The partnership creates a decade-long blueprint for American intervention in Afghanistan, through at least 2024.
While the public face of the pact reaffirms that U.S. troops will leave by 2014, carefully worded language ensures a significant presence of American forces in the region at all times to step in when circumstances dictate, as well as direct American control of all “security” decisions made by the Afghan government.
U.S. troops may have a “narrower” mission post-2014, but the new agreement allows an undetermined number of forces to operate within Afghanistan under the umbrella of counter-terrorism and “training.” There is no limit on how many American troops can remain within Afghan borders after the “official” withdrawal date of 2014.
U.S. government officials say the preservation of virtual control over the Afghan theater even without American boots on the ground is in reaction to mistakes made by the Soviets in their Afghan campaign three decades ago. The administration contends that retaining a muscular presence in the region means the Taliban “can’t wait us out.”
The Strategic Partnership Agreement provides the framework for the U.S./Afghanistan partnership after the transition and drawdown of US forces, from 2014-2024. The agreement will detail how the partnership will be normalized as the war comes to an end, senior administration officials told pool reporters traveling on Air Force Once. Afghan forces are scheduled to take the lead on security in 2013, with U.S. troops scheduled to withdrawal from the country in 2014.
Force and funding levels will not be determined in Afghanistan, senior administration officials said, but will be determined by the U.S. in consultation with its allies.
Senior administration officials argued that the Agreement learns the lessons from mistakes made by the U.S. after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and the U.S. largely moved on, though the U.S. government had been funding mujahideen groups fighting the U.S.S.R. The ensuing chaos led to civil war then the rise of the Taliban, a group that allowed a haven from which Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda launched the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“We won’t repeat that mistake,” a senior administration official said, adding that the Agreement, which plans a partnership with the Afghan government through 2024, “sends a message to the Taliban that they can’t wait us out.”
The president’s visit and new partnership with the Afghan government comes at a bleak during for the war, with violence surging across the country and public support for the mission almost entirely eroded.
Many countries have already pulled their troops out prior to the official NATO withdrawal timetable of 2014 in the face of building public pressure for an end to the conflict. High-profile incidents committed by U.S. and international forces involving religious insensitivity and mass civilian casualties have grabbed headlines and led to even greater distrust of the occupying forces among the Afghan people.
American casualties have spiked with new offensives designed to put down the resurgent Taliban. As President Obama spoke from Kabul on Tuesday, nearly 2,000 U.S. troops have died in the Afghan war since it was launched over ten years ago.
Public comment from the military and administration officials have largely ignored any discussion of setbacks of adversity in Afghanistan. Like the president on Tuesday, most government officials insist the U.S. is winning the war and bringing stability to Afghanistan ahead of what can be an “honorable” withdrawal in 2014.
A new Pentagon report on the success of the war generally toes the administration line , highlighting “progress” made. But even military leaders acknowledge new “challenges” that have compromised their mission.
In a twice-annual report to Congress, the Defense Department said overall insurgent attacks declined in 2011 for the first time in five years, even though violence increased in areas surrounding the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Kandahar, a region where U.S. efforts have been focused since 2009.
Overall, the Pentagon said, violence in Afghanistan decreased by 9 percent in 2011 compared to 2010.
The military statistics, released selectively, showed the United States moving “from us essentially losing the war to us making important progress” and seeking to consolidate those gains as foreign troops withdraw, a senior Defense Department official told reporters.
Yet the report said that “long-term and acute challenges” remain in Afghanistan, including insurgents’ ability to renew their fighting power in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the “limited capacity” of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.
Flowery speeches and carefully crafted military reports have had little effect on public perception of the war in Afghanistan. Republican or Democrat, Independent or moderate, Americans have almost universally turned on the idea that the United States should be fighting in Afghanistan.
One recent poll found that a record low of just 23 percent of Americans say that continuing the war is the “right thing to do.” Nearly 70 percent are demanding an immediate withdrawal.
According to the survey, conducted among 986 adults from March 21-25, just 23 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is doing the right thing by fighting in Afghanistan. That percentage – the lowest ever recorded by CBS News and the New York Times in this survey – is down from 36 percent in November 2011. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan, the highest percentage of respondents who have said so since CBS News/New York Times started asking that question in 2009.
Only one in four Americans believes the war is going well for the U.S., the poll indicates, down from 48 percent last November. This percentage comes close to the question’s all-time low, at 23 percent in November 2009, shortly before President Obama announced his plan for a surge of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.