Obama Takes On Afghan War

Posted November 30, 2009 at 6:28pm

President Barack Obama’s new strategy on Afghanistan — to be unveiled tonight in a nationally televised speech from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point — will likely trigger howls of protest from both the right and the left on Capitol Hill.

But the White House insisted Monday that the decision has nothing to do with political calculus.

“The president is rising above politics to make this decision,— a White House official declared.

The official scoffed at criticism already emanating from GOP leaders. “You mean the criticism that’s coming even before the policy is announced?— the official quipped.

The official compared the Republican grumbling to GOP criticism of Obama’s economic stimulus plan earlier this year — which, White House aides said, was unleashed by GOP leaders even as Obama traveled in a motorcade to Capitol Hill to sell Republicans on the policy.

But Republicans wasted little time questioning Obama’s reported approach to Afghanistan, saying that he may err by sending in the troops too slowly and that with a timetable for withdrawal the plan would only encourage the Taliban to hunker down and wait for the United States to leave.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, are unhappy about any new troops being sent into the theater and are demanding a greater emphasis on letting the Afghans fight their own war.

But Democratic leaders are hopeful that Obama’s recent, highly public trumpeting of his desire for an exit strategy will calm liberals.

One House Democratic leadership aide argued that once it sinks in that Obama will put the troops on a path toward departure, there may be some attenuation of the liberal backlash against the president’s policy.

“I think that’s where we could find some common ground — an exit strategy makes sense,— the aide said. “It could help— with liberals.

White House officials suggested the exit strategy will take up a sizable portion of Obama’s speech. “Ultimately, the strategy will be to transfer the security responsibility of an area to the Afghans,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “That is a big part of what you’ll hear the president talk about tomorrow.—

White House aides say Obama is looking for an exit because he thinks the United States needs one.

“If an exit strategy appeals to liberals, that’s great,— the White House official said. “But that’s not the reason it’s in there.—

Even so, Obama will have time to drum home the news of an exit to Democrats. The House Democratic aide said that a vote on supplemental spending for the troop increase is not expected for a couple of months at least.

“They don’t need the money yet,— he said of the administration.

The House aide noted that part of the reason the House overwhelmingly approved an Iraq War supplemental spending bill earlier this year was the knowledge that Obama was shooting for an exit from Iraq in 2011. But he said that if Obama fails to include a specific date for departing Afghanistan, it could dilute the administration’s ability to appease liberals.

The issue is sure to come up during a House Democratic Caucus meeting this week that is supposed to focus on jobs but will also delve into Afghanistan policy, the aide said.

Obama will consult with Congressional leaders from both parties about the speech at 4 p.m. today before heading to West Point.

The president plans to run through the “detailed decisions that he has made and [have] been relayed to the chain of command,— Gibbs said.

Obama began calling foreign leaders to discuss his plans Monday afternoon. More calls will be made today.

Gibbs said Monday that the president had already conveyed the order for the increase — which is expected to total about 30,000 troops — to commanders.

But while he declined to discuss how the new troops will be paid for, Gibbs acknowledged that the Pentagon has been using a thumbnail estimate of about $1 billion for every 1,000 troops sent in.

Gibbs said “a good portion— of the speech will be devoted to the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the president’s desire for “a renewed engagement diplomatically with the Pakistanis to jointly address violent extremism.—