Troop Drawdown Could Influence 2012 Election

During the last presidential campaign, the war in Iraq was the most important foreign issue. Now that President Obama has pulled combat troops out of Iraq, another campaign season is here, and Afghanistan has the spotlight. How will the plan Obama announced this week for a troop drawdown influence the presidential race?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama's announcement of a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan was a military decision, and also inevitably political. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how the president's plan could influence the presidential race.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama's Afghanistan speech included a lot of dates. For political junkies, the most important date was this one...

INSKEEP: We will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point.

SHAPIRO: The exact timing is still being determined. But a White House official assured reporters in a conference call that the final surge troops will leave, quote, "no later than September." That's two months before Americans vote for president. Coincidence?

MONTAGNE: When the voters go into the booth in November, he can say I pulled the troops out. And I think that's obviously what the president wants.

SHAPIRO: Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution was John McCain's foreign policy advisor during the last Presidential campaign.

MONTAGNE: The fighting season in Afghanistan goes through the fall. I know that the military commanders wanted to get two full fighting seasons in. And this drawdown rate pretty much denies them a full fighting season next year.

SHAPIRO: But the White House says the motivation for this timeline was purely strategic.

MONTAGNE: By definition, if you are committed to transition, the Afghans are going to be steadily moving into the lead.

SHAPIRO: Ben Rhodes is the deputy national security advisor.

MONTAGNE: So next summer allows us to both consolidate the gains of the surge, while making sure we're continuing our training effort and Afghans are capable of moving into the lead.

SHAPIRO: Even if the motivation is purely military, the president is likely to benefit politically. This war has been unpopular for years, and Mr. Obama can argue that he is ending it.

So where does this leave his Republican challengers? Well, many of them are ambiguous about whether they would pull troops out faster or slower than the president.

MONTAGNE: When America goes to war, America needs to win.

SHAPIRO: Here's how Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty put it on Fox News this week.

MONTAGNE: We need to close out the war successfully. And what that means now is not nation-building. What it means is to follow General Petraeus's advice and to get those security forces built up to the point where they can pick up the slack as we draw down.

SHAPIRO: When the interviewer asked whether Pawlenty would send in more troops, he did not directly answer the question.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said in a statement after the speech, we shouldn't adhere to an arbitrary timetable. Here's how he put it during the Republican presidential debate last week in New Hampshire.

MONTAGNE: I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.

SHAPIRO: Beneath all this ambiguity is a real divide within the Republican Party between the traditionally hawkish approach to foreign affairs and a growing sense that the U.S. needs to focus on problems at home.

Republican pollster David Winston says he expects the candidates' positions to become clearer with time.

MONTAGNE: And one of the things that the Republicans have made as a charge against the president is that his foreign policy doctrine, his overall policy, at sometimes seems to be sort of piecemeal and there's no coherent theme. But if you're going to make that charge, you know, you need to have one yourself.

SHAPIRO: Winston says the most important thing to know about Afghanistan is it's not jobs, and it's not the economy. That means it will not be at the top of voters' list of concerns going into the polling booth. Still, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations says it's impossible to extricate economic concerns from the Afghanistan debate.

MONTAGNE: It's almost always true after a large-scale U.S. combat operation that people say, never again. But there's always been an again. The major difference this time is our economic situation.

SHAPIRO: Gelb predicts that despite all this strategic talk about whether the U.S. will be in Afghanistan another two years or five years and how many forces will stay behind there, ultimately, these decisions may be based less on strategy and more on the state of the economy, no matter who is president.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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