No so very long ago, Afghanistan was known as "the forgotten war." While America's attention was largely focused on Baghdad, many forgot our military was even in another country. But these days, Afghanistan is hard to miss in the headlines. Rumors are swirling over what President Obama will do there -- increase American troops, draw down troops, keep the same troops (it depends on which headlines you read) -- and how he will change our strategy and goals. Talk of "failure" is rampant, except that now it is not coming from the anti-war crowd, but instead from the Pentagon. President Obama needs to get out front on this issue, by beginning to talk about our newly-forgotten war: Iraq.
If you're scratching your head over that last statement, allow me to explain. Obama is going to face some criticism over Afghanistan, no matter what he says or decides on the issue. The criticism will come from different directions, depending on what he does decide, but it will come nonetheless. If he decides to boost troops (the media really should say "boost troops further than Obama's already boosted them," but they usually omit that part), then he will face heavy skepticism from anti-war Democrats, and possibly from some budget-conscious centrists or Republicans. If Obama decides to pull troops out, he will face more than a little bit of pushback from Republicans. If he decides to keep everything the same, he'll likely face pushback from everyone, including the Pentagon. No matter what course Obama charts, there are going to be people convinced it is the wrong one, you can bet on that.
Which is why Obama needs to start talking about Iraq in the midst of this debate. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's not. Iraq and Afghanistan are tied together by the thread (more than a thread, but that's how the metaphor bounces, so to speak) of the American military. We have troops in both places. Lots of troops. Troop decisions in one place affect the ability to make decisions in the other. A "zero-sum" situation, if you will.
And President Obama needs to announce a troop withdrawal framework for 2010 in Iraq. This will change the entire discussion about troops and about Afghanistan, in several significant ways. For the sake of discussion, let's say Obama announces that 25,000 or 30,000 more American troops will be heading to Afghanistan. But at the same time, he announces that next year we will begin pulling out 70,000 troops from Iraq in a safe and coordinated manner. This muddies the waters, no matter where you stand on Afghanistan. Those who want all of America's troops home (next week, preferably) will criticize Obama for his Afghanistan strategy, while praising his moves on Iraq. And vice-versa, for those on the other side of the argument.
The whole raging debate over the "timetable for withdrawal" which took place during the campaign is largely over. President George W. Bush signed just such a timeline, right before he left office. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki got pretty much everything he wanted out of this agreement, including a hard deadline (the end of 2011) for all U.S. troops to be out of his country. Note that that says all troops, and not "combat" troops. That is the deadline for our withdrawal. That is the timetable. We have met the first milestone on this timetable, when we pulled all of our troops out of Iraqi cities at the beginning of the summer.
But we still really haven't started to leave, yet. A few thousand troops got rotated out, but we still have somewhere around 130,000 soldiers in the country -- around twice what we currently have in Afghanistan. Obama, during the campaign, liked to talk about withdrawing a few thousand of these troops "every month or so" after he took office. This, to a large part, has not begun. The stated reason is to provide security for the upcoming Iraqi national elections due to take place at the end of this year.
Assuming this election is relatively peaceful (which may be a premature assumption, I admit), then once it is over it will be time for those soldiers to start packing up the old kit bag and returning home.
Now, much was made during the election about a "precipitous timetable for withdrawal," but anyone in their right mind knows that this will be a gigantic operation, involving enormous numbers not just of men and women but also of all the hardware involved as well. Decisions will have to be made as to what vehicles and other equipment will be brought back home, what will be left for the Iraqis to use, and what is cheaper to destroy or junk rather than spend money shipping it home. In other words, it will involve a lot of planning.
That planning needs to be talked about before it happens. And the end of the year is right around the corner. Meaning the time to talk about it is now. President Obama should take the reins of this horse and begin this conversation. This doesn't mean, of course, that he is going to have a fully-developed plan to talk about right away. But he can start becoming a lot more specific about what he intends to do about Iraq in the next two years. When asked about Iraq recently, he merely pointed out "we have to be out by the end of 2011," but didn't take it any further.
Obama would do himself a world of good politically if he started talking in much more concrete terms about how this pullout will be achieved. Obama should begin by saying something like the following:
"Our goal -- which could change if the situation on the ground changes, of course -- our goal is to bring 70,000 troops home over the course of the next year. I will be speaking with the Pentagon about coming up with a plan to safely withdraw five or six thousand soldiers each month next year. I think that pace is realistic, and that security can be maintained while hitting that pace. We need to have all our troops out in a little over two years, so we simply must begin planning for it now in order to have a timely and safe withdrawal."
Of course, the actual number can be different (I just picked 70,000 randomly), as long as it has a lot of zeros in it. If Obama tossed this out into the media shark pit, the conversation on troop levels would change overnight. Instead of focusing solely on Afghanistan (after largely ignoring it for years), the discussion would shift to include what is in danger of being labeled our "newly-forgotten war" in Iraq. This introduces nuance to the argument of where best to station American military personnel. It would also give Obama's base a much-needed boost, in fulfilling campaign promises made on the subject. He's already fulfilled one campaign promise on Afghanistan by almost doubling our troop presence there since he came to office. He may be ready to increase this level even further (again, depending on which headlines you believe). So it's not like he's being inconsistent on Afghanistan.
But he should also start fulfilling his promises on withdrawing our troops from Iraq. It's time, Mr. President, to start bringing our troops home. From one war, at least.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant