White House frames Afghan withdrawal as victory

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Despite Afghanistan’s uncertain future, President Barack Obama and his deputies are attempting to cast the long war fought there as a victory of sorts, while holding fast to a timetable that sees American forces withdraw before 2015.

After 2014, “the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues,” Obama said at a media event at the NATO summit in Chicago.

“The way in which countries contribute to the mission will evolve… and that is perfectly appropriate because we are increasingly shifting responsibility to the Afghan national security forces for the security of the country,” said Ivo Daalder, Obama’s ambassador to NATO.

“By December 31st of 2014, Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country… but they can count on our continued support for their security forces going forward,” said Douglas Lute, Obama’s Afghanistan policy chief.

Still, a few discouraging words were heard at the marquee event, whose formal events on Monday will provide Obama with a colorful backdrop of officials and flags from the 62 nations now contributing to Afghanistan.

“The Taliban is still a resilient and capable opponent,” said Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “We fully expect that combat is going to continue.”

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is also slated to attend the event, despite evidence that Pakistan has provided support for the Taliban forces that have attacked U.S. forces for more than a decade.

The White House’s positive spin may help Obama’s 2012 campaign, partly because public support for the war in Afghanistan has declined during Obama’s three years in office. “This should be a good issue for us,” a Democratic strategist told Politico.

However, that gamble may go wrong — even before the election — if Afghanistan’s ruling coalition quickly splits amid expectations of an inevitable U.S. departure and a renewed Taliban offensive.

Obama’s determination to remove most U.S. forces from combat was made clear by a May 20 New York Times article, which cited White House officials saying that Obama decided in early 2011 that he would pull all U.S. forces out of the country by 2014.

He made the decision with a close circle of advisers, and without the input of the Secretary of Defense or top generals, the Times said.

“It is hard not to conclude both that Obama simply does not want to win [in Afghanistan], and that he has no concept of the cost of losing wars,” said Michael Rubin, a regional expert and former Pentagon official, now at the American Enterprise Institute.

“When the Soviets stopped fighting and sought an adviser-only role, the [Afghan] government collapsed [in 1989] and the result was civil war, Islamist radicalism, and ultimately 9/11” in 2001, Rubin said.

“If he was going to craft a strategy to lose everything, it would not look different from what he has implemented now,” Rubin said.

Obama’s determination to quit Afghanistan will also have a wider impact on the nation’s security, said Tom Donnelly, a military expert at AEI.

“The jihadis will claim victory — they always do,” Donnelly said.

A U.S. exit will also shape how “the real powers [in the Middle East and elsewhere], read our retreat and hedge their bets or try to exploit our limits, our perceived weakness and increasingly inward focus,” he said.

At the Chicago summit, White House officials tried to avoid any negative aspects of the scheduled exit from Afghanistan, some 11 years after U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban government, captured al-Qaida’s Afghan bases, and ushered in an unprecedented period of peace, prosperity and progress for women.

Afghans “want to have a full reassertion of Afghan sovereignty at the end of 2014, knowing that they can count on the support of the United States and the international community going forward,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, at a press event at the NATO meeting.

Officials also put a positive spin on Obama’s efforts to prod Afghan President Hamid Karzai into making concessions to the hardline Taliban army that is trying to take over the country.

“President Obama committed to supporting fully Afghan-led reconciliation — all at the aim of getting to the point where you could have the Afghan government talking to the Afghan Taliban about the future of Afghanistan,” said Lute.

Karzai, who is reliant on U.S. financial aid and military support, did not make any public protest.

“Mr. President, I’m bringing to you and to the people of the United States the gratitude of the Afghan people for the support that your taxpayers’ money has provided us over the past decade,” Karzai said during a brief appearance with Obama at the Chicago summit.

However, media reports from Afghanistan say that Karzai has repeatedly pushed back against Obama’s diplomatic strategy, fearing concessions to the Taliban may break up his coalition and bolster Taliban ambitions.

Amid the positive spin, U.S. officials at the summit did acknowledge some problems.

Neither the United States nor other NATO countries have finalized plans to provide $1.3 billion in planned aid for the Afghan army, Rhodes said.

“We’ll be able to close that out here with the contributions that have been made leading into the [NATO] summit, at the summit, and then going forward here in the coming weeks and months,” he said.

The Taliban have also rejected Obama’s diplomatic offers, and have rallied their scattered forces to attack Afghan forces once U.S. troops leave towns, cities and provinces.

“The Taliban have been unambiguous in that they intend to take advantage of the removal of the surge forces, and… we’re going to watch very, very closely their activities,” said Gen. Allen.

Until the end of 2014, he said, “we have forces [in Afghanistan] that are available that we intend to put against that.”

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