Afghanistan: To Carry On, or Carrion?

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A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan last week / Air Force photo by Brian Ferguson

After a decade of war in Afghanistan, the battle lines — at least among the activists — are clearly drawn. The usual suspects have been rolling out their voice boxes atop soapboxes to explain, in advance of President Obama’s speech Wednesday night, why we must keep fighting, or come home. Few fall in-between.

This is what happens when a war begins to ripen past its sell-buy date. The outlines seem clear: Obama will declare some kind of success tonight and call for the 30,000 troops he sent into Afghanistan as a “surge” force over the last 18 months to come home by the end of next year. The key question is when: will they come home quickly, and therefore be unavailable for the 2012 “fighting season” that stretches from next spring to autumn? Or will most of them hang around until next fall — at the height of Obama’s re-election campaign — so they can battle the Taliban and try to bomb them to the negotiating table?

With the death of Osama bin Laden, a war-weary American public, and escalating budget concerns, there’s a fair chance those troops will be coming home sooner rather than later. That will upset some in the U.S. military, but so long as Obama has the backing of incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (you bet) and soon-to-be CIA chief David Petraeus (now running the war as a four-star Army general, so he’ll be the tougher to win over), his decision should be bullet-proof politically, and probably militarily.

Regardless of what happens, the outsiders are ready to pounce like vultures circling carrion. Move America Forward, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest pro-troop grassroots organization,” is warning that bringing any troops home could be dangerous:

President Obama is expected to announce a token withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, reportedly, against the advice of some Pentagon officials and military leaders. Move America Forward is highly skeptical, fearing the move is entirely political rather than in the best interest of the soldiers or their mission. President Obama should be listening to his Generals and ensuring success in Afghanistan.

Perhaps, but seeing as their next annual Troopathon — an annual event to collect care packages for U.S. troops overseas — will be held at the Nixon Presidential Library, may give one pause.

On the other side of the debate, a group calling itself Peace Action West has been collecting messages sent to Congress from Americans who believe the war should end sooner rather than later. “The group is sending each message to Congress along with a toy soldier,” it says.

“The Pentagon is trying with all its might to minimize the withdrawal this July, calling for the removal of as few as 5,000 soldiers this year, keeping as many combat troops on the ground as possible,” said Rebecca Griffin, Peace Action West’s political director. “That’s why we need to push back hard. This war stopped making sense to most Americans long ago, and we are pushing Congress to demand an end to the war.”

Since the death of bin Laden, the mood toward the Afghan war has headed south among Americans. A Washington Post poll earlier this month found that three of every four people surveyed want a “substantial” number of combat troops to head home from Afghanistan this summer. With no clear, sustainable path to victory Afghanistan, Obama would have to be politically deaf to ignore the nation’s wishes. But he’s politically deft, not deaf. While he may share big ears with LBJ, he has no desire to share another of Lyndon Johnson’s attributes: continuing to push the nation deeper into an increasingly unpopular war. That led LBJ to abandon his chance for a second term, and Obama’s not about to do that.