It seems so so long ago, when Barack Obama decided to throw his highly improbable hat into the ring of the 2008 election cycle. But back then, before we knew how deeply Wall Street would cripple the global economy with its recklessness, the primary issue that dominated politics and that made his victory possible was the Iraq war – and to a lesser extent, the Afghanistan war. He pledged to end one and win the other. By any secure metric, he has done both.
I remain staggered by this achievement and doubted it from the get-go. I assumed that we could not get out of Iraq without a civil war breaking out and harassing our departing troops. I feared that Obama's Afghanistan surge was a dreadful error that would make ending the war impossible. But like so many aspects of this administration, what hasn't happened is as salient as what has. Iraq is in permanent crisis and our departure has left a country riven by sectarianism and violence and a burgeoning Shiite authoritarianism. But the ungrateful volcano didn't explode before we got out; and if you regard the surge as a face-saving withdrawal plan, rather than as some kind of "victory", then it worked.
And yesterday, I get a text from one of my friends, a former Special Ops guy who was one of the first to learn how to ride a horse, grow a beard and disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001. It read:
Are we leaving afghanistan. No way we are that is awesome.
The facts have persuaded me that this war needs to come to an end. But the most persuasive arguments I have heard have come from my friends who have served there. Every single one described "nation-building" there to be about as insane as, well, a 51st state on the moon. All of them wanted to find and kill the men who attacked the US a decade ago – and go home. Since Obama took office, they have been granted their wish: almost all the al Qaeda leadership dead, and bin Laden's bones being picked dry by fishes. But Les Gelb notes how smartly the administration has handled the policy and the politics:
The White House had begun to shape this decision almost two months ago, with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Vice President Joe Biden, and Defense Secretary Panetta doing the pushing. Key administration officials said these senior leaders had become convinced that U.S. interests in Afghanistan were no longer vital, and that more American deaths and billions in costs were no longer worthwhile. But they hadn’t figured out the details or the politics until about two weeks ago.
Specifically, they wouldn’t speed up withdrawals until after the U.S. election, but they would hasten the end of the American combat role. They still have additional big decisions to work out with generals on the ground: what use to make of U.S. airpower in support of Afghan forces and to forestall concentrations of Taliban troops; whether to continue special-forces attacks, etc. Also, and very importantly, they still need to figure out how fast to bring home the remaining 68,000 troops after the U.S. election.
In running for re-election, Obama will be able to say he delivered on four core objectives: restoring economic growth in one year after inheriting the worst recession since the 1930s; ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; delivering universal healthcare; and saving the now buoyant American auto sector. And Romney wants to run against Obama's record. Go for it, Mitt.
(Photo: Attenders of a welcome ceremony for the 170th U.S. Army Infantry Brigade upon the troops' return from Afghanistan salute at U.S. Army Garrison Baumholder on January 28, 2012 in Baumholder, Germany. The 170th Infantry Brigade, which is based at Baumholder, is one of four Army brigades stationed in Europe. U.S. military officials announced recently that two brigades will likely be withdrawn in the near future as part of a broader cost-cutting effort, and analysts have cited the 170th as a likely candidate. By Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)