The President Has an Opportunity on Afghanistan. Will He Use It?

AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

There are not going to be many better opportunities to change course in Afghanistan than the one presented by the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. It may be worth highlighting how ripe an opportunity this is:

  1. The politics on the Hill are changing. It probably comes as no surprise that Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) would like to end the Afghanistan war, but their “Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act” has brought on co-sponsors like Tea Party stalwarts Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Justin Amash (R-MI). This means that in the days and weeks to come, there will be Republicans on television and radio making the case for withdrawal. That could have a profound effect on where the debate goes from here. On the Senate side, establishment Republican graybeards like Richard Lugar (R-IN) seem to be indicating that their patience is wearing out.
  2. Wired-in reporters like Time’s Joe Klein are saying that they believe dramatic drawdowns are coming. Here he goes so far as to suggest that the United States may draw down to roughly 20,000 troops before the end of next year.
  3. Gen. Petraeus is going to have a very full plate running the CIA, and will have his attention focused on running the sorts of operations like the one Sunday that got bin Laden. Moreover, his replacement, Gen. John Allen, is a Marine, which Tom Ricks suggests makes him “likely to be skeptical of Army support structure, and…likely [to] be comfortable with an austere infrastructure during the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.”
  4. Silly statements by political leaders could misinform the public in useful ways. It was absurd for Rudy Giuliani to say that getting bin Laden was “like taking out Hitler,” but if frames like World War II keep coming up, and if the war against al Qaeda is thought of in analogy with wars against powerful states, historically, once you get the head guy, the war’s over. Everyone knows that’s not the case with a maintenance problem like terrorism, but the public, like Giuliani, is probably casting about for some place where we can call this thing over and move on.
  5. The neoconservatives and liberal imperialists’ numbers have thinned and they have spread themselves too thinly. Between Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, the public seems to be tired of war. And my impressionistic sense is that the public increasingly has had it with the median writer at the New Republic or Weekly Standard.
  6. The giant debt. The fact is that cutting military spending can’t singlehandedly solve the long-term debt problem, but the zeitgeist of the day, austerity, has a way of clarifying minds about whether using their children’s credit card to pay $100-plus billion per year for a nation-building mission in Afghanistan is really worth the cost.

In short, the president has increasing political cover, a clear pivot point, a widely-appreciated need, public deference, and sound strategic logic for dramatically scaling back in Afghanistan. If he spends a nickel of every dollar of political capital he spent on Obamacare, he can do this. On the other hand, if he fails to seize the opportunity, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.

If he needs some ideas, he could start here or here.