January 25, 2011

Obama Must Reassure Wary Public on Progress in Afghanistan, Lawmakers Say

President Barack Obama must reassure the public in his State of the Union address tonight that the U.S. is making enough progress in Afghanistan to start withdrawing troops as planned in July, lawmakers say.

“I don’t believe the administration has outlined success,” said Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, at a press forum sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

While Obama’s speech will focus on domestic priorities, such as jobs and deficit reduction, winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq tops his foreign policy agenda. Much hinges on the success -- and perceived success -- of the president’s decision in December 2009 to add troops and intensify the campaign against the Taliban.

The U.S.-led coalition has driven the Taliban from strongholds in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces. At the same time, the Taliban has killed local leaders who cooperated with the West and kidnapped aid workers. The Obama administration has clashed with President Hamid Karzai over issues such as corruption in his regime and an Afghan plan to tax U.S. contractors.

Public Divided

A poll this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that almost the same percentage of Americans, 24 percent, said the U.S. is losing ground in Afghanistan as those who see progress, 23 percent. Forty-five percent said the situation hasn’t changed.

The president “will certainly talk about where we are and what progress has been made in our war in Afghanistan,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday.

An administration review last month determined that, while sending more troops has produced gains, “the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable.”

Obama “has to make the point that, first of all, our economic viability is related in some degree to the issue of national security,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a telephone interview yesterday from the state capital, Providence, after returning from a visit to Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Osama bin Laden’s plan was not only to sow fear “but also disrupt our economy,” he said.

The last of the added forces arrived in Afghanistan in October. Fighting, including special operations raids, increased, and so did the number of casualties. The U.S. has 97,000 troops on the ground, working with 48,000 from 47 other nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led coalition.

As U.S. and allied forces leave Afghanistan, the need for non-military aid will continue, Reed said. Leading Republicans have said they intend to cut the State Department and foreign aid budgets.

Fresh Marines

About 1,400 fresh Marines will bolster forces in southern Afghanistan in the coming months to prevent backsliding after fighting intensifies again with the winter thaw.

The administration probably wouldn’t have sent those Marines without some confidence of success, said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“When the president doesn’t remind people why we’re there and in particular doesn’t suggest we can win, the polls’ support for the war declines,” said Donnelly, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

More than 1,100 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action during the Afghan conflict, already America’s longest war. In Iraq, where the U.S. plans to withdraw the last 50,000 forces by the end of this year under a 2008 agreement with the Iraqi government, 3,501 U.S. service members have been killed.

Hearings Ahead

Even Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has backed Obama on the war, has called the progress “fragile.” He said after the review last month that he would hold “a robust series of public hearings” early this year on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who backed Obama for the presidency in 2008, said adding troops in Afghanistan has produced “rather inconclusive results.”

“There are some elements that suggest success and some elements where I think there has been back-sliding,” Powell, a retired U.S. Army general who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Jan. 23 on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “So I’m not sure where we’re going to be in July.”

Obama probably will reconfirm the intent to transfer security in parts of Afghanistan to local forces beginning in July, said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a policy group in Washington.

“It doesn’t make sense for him to be too specific,” in part because that may tip off the enemy, said Nagl, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.

Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who led the delegation to the region with Reed, said he hopes Obama will reaffirm the July date for starting a force reduction.

Iran Nuclear Program

Levin said he’d also like Obama to discuss Afghanistan’s neighbor to the West -- Iran. Obama should make clear the administration is prepared to impose more sanctions where possible, said Levin.

U.S. officials have said Iran’s nuclear program has suffered technical setbacks delaying its development. “Everybody thought we were going to have war with Iran this year,” Nagl said. “Not only did it not happen, but it’s been moved further away.”

Obama also is likely to outline his achievements on arms control, the focus of a policy speech he gave in Prague within months of his 2009 inauguration.

Arms-Control Successes

Last year marked at least two successes, a multinational summit in Washington on securing nuclear materials such as plutonium and uranium, and Senate ratification of a new long- range nuclear arms control treaty with Russia.

Next steps may encounter more resistance, including an agreement with Russia to reduce tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which faces objections from leaders in Moscow, and a renewed attempt at Senate ratification of a global treaty to ban nuclear testing, rejected in 1999.

While the administration may take baby steps toward those goals in 2011, the odds of more breakthroughs are slim, said Lugar, who backed Obama in the December vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. Asked in an interview last week what the prospects are for the rest of Obama’s arms-control agenda, Lugar said, “I don’t see any ‘rest of his agenda’ this session of Congress.”