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Petraeus And The Politics Of Afghanistan


President Obama may have saved his reputation as commander-in-chief by firing Stanley McChrystal today, but he deepened his Afghan quagmire by choosing David Petraeus as the replacement.

There may be immediate pressure on Congress to pass the Afghanistan war supplemental under the pretext of showing national resolve. The measure by Rep. Jim McGovern, which requires an exit strategy including a withdrawal timeline, awaits House action after the Senate killed an identical bill by Sen. Russ Feingold two weeks ago. The Feingold measure was supported by 18 senators, an initial gauge of anti-war sentiment. Support for the McGovern bill hovers around 100 House members.

Perhaps the most important thing we know about Petraeus is not that he was the author of the Iraq surge, but that he is a political general, who openly pays attention to two "clocks"–that of events on the ground and that of domestic public opinion as well. The Iraq surge strategy was meant to speed up the Iraq clock [throwing more troops into battle] while slowing the American clock [convincing elites and voters alike that the war was ending, more gradually than peace advocates wanted, but with a timetable that was opposed by the Bush-Cheney administration and neo-con believers in the Long War].

In the case of Afghanistan, Petraeus will want to speed up the Afghan clock by the summer-fall military escalation in southern Afghanistan, and, according to recent testimony, slow down the American clock–now ticking toward a July 2011 deadline to "begin" US troop withdrawals. On a parallel diplomatic track, Petraeus will support very gradual steps toward talks with the insurgents.

There could be friction with the White House if Petraeus and his allies insist on a "conditions-based" troop withdrawal plan. Over the weekend, Rahm Emmanual emphasized in interviews that the July 2011 deadline for initial withdrawals was a firm one.

By that time most, if not all, of America’s NATO allies will be withdrawing their troops and heading for an exit strategy. The multilateral cover will be gone.

Obama may well want to run for re-election in 2012 on a platform of having ended the Iraq War and begun the end of the Afghanistan one.  

The greatest leverage that the broad peace movement may have is the power of mass disaffection. Obama won the 2008 Democratic primaries on his promise to end the Iraq war, which Hillary Clinton had voted to authorize. In fact, Obama virtually began his campaign with an anti-war speech at a rally organized by the local anti-war coalition in Chicago.

But in trying to win in Afghanistan, Obama definitely risks losing most of the peace movement and the larger bloc of peace voters. This loss of support may not be orchestrated, but be measured in disillusionment, apathy, lack of energy, volunteers and grass-roots participation in states where the election will be close.

Republicans have a political strategy of branding Afghanistan as Obama’s war and blaming him for not winning. I talked with a member of Congress this week [who declined to be named] who predicted that Republicans will force the Congressional Democratic majority to vote for Afghanistan funding in the coming days, thus co-owning Obama’s war, then "hammer [Obama] with it" and try to "use it as the last nail in the coffin."

For an additional perspective on the Obama-Petraeus approach, please see Gareth Porter’s analysis via the Inter Press Service.

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