Obama Seeks Delicate Balance Between Two Wars

Series Overview

The Obama Tracker

NPR's Obama Tracker charts significant events and developments in the new administration, and actions the president takes as he settles into the job.

On his first full day in office, President Obama called his top military advisers to the White House and ordered strategy reviews to help chart the way forward in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was Jan. 21, and the popular new president faced high expectations among the public to find a successful direction in two grinding conflicts that have cost thousands of American lives.

Now, 100 days into his tenure, a plan is in motion. But so, too, are changeable military and political conditions in the two countries that threaten Obama's strategy to shift emphasis from the war in Iraq and instead "finish the job" in Afghanistan.

Some members of Congress and other critics are dubious.

"How will we assess whether the new strategy is working? How will we know if we're winning?" says Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Obama is learning firsthand the challenges of fighting two wars at once as he completes the transition from campaigning to governing.

Iraq Deadline Amended

From his first days on the campaign trail, Obama hammered home this message: He had opposed invading Iraq in the first place. U.S. troops should come home as soon as possible.

By last July, after months of crisscrossing the country and hundreds of stump speeches, Obama had polished his promise and amended his deadline. The new mission for U.S. troops in Iraq would be to end the war, he said, and it would take some time.

"We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months," Obama said.

There was a reason for that urgency: Obama promised over and over at campaign rallies that he would stop one war in Iraq so he could turn to the other.

"We will bring this war to an end. We will focus attention on Afghanistan," he said.

While running for president, Obama did not lay out a precise plan or a timetable for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But he made one line — "We're going to finish the job in Afghanistan" — a central plank in his foreign policy platform.

By late February, five weeks after taking the oath of office, Obama had settled on a plan for Iraq. He flew to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, to announce a deadline:

"Let me say this as plainly as I can: By Aug. 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," he said.

That target date is 19 months after he took office, not the promised 16. The president also said that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

But if he is able to stick to those deadlines, Obama will likely be seen to have honored the spirit, if not the letter, of his campaign pledges.

But analysts say it is a big "if."

Afghan Strategy Hinges, In Part, On Iraq

As the security situation continues to worsen in Afghanistan, questions abound about what the "job" in Afghanistan is and what it would mean to "finish" it.

In response, Obama has announced a new strategy for the region that he says has a "clear and focused goal."

The mission, Obama says, is "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." The new strategy includes more troops, more aid money and more civilian experts.

The Pentagon says a list of benchmarks is coming — probably within the next week or so — in order to measure the success of the new strategy.

But success in Afghanistan hinges, at least in part, on being able to withdraw troops, equipment and other supplies from Iraq and shift them to the battlefield in Afghanistan.

"The biggest strategic issue before the United States in all of this right now is the relationship between Iraq and Afghanistan," says Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Moving Too Fast Poses Dangers

Biddle says there is a real danger if Obama — in order to turn to Afghanistan — moves too quickly to fulfill his promise to end the war in Iraq.

The wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in Iraq in recent weeks is a worrisome sign that the long-sought goal of stability remains elusive.

Indeed, some of the president's own military advisers have questioned whether U.S. troops will be able to leave by the deadlines Obama has established.

"If Iraq returns to violence, it's probably not a recoverable situation right now. We're not going to do a second surge. If we draw down in Iraq too fast and violence returns, it is probably irremediable," Biddle says.

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