Can Obama Make Good On Promises About Wars?

President-elect Barack Obama will soon inherit twin national security crises: two stubborn wars.

Whomever Obama taps to run the Pentagon will be burdened with finding a way out of Iraq and crafting a way to ease the fighting in Afghanistan. There's much speculation on who will lead the Pentagon next year and carry out those policies.

Iraq

Obama forged his campaign around his opposition to the Iraq war and turning over security to Iraqi forces.

"Sen. Obama has been emphasizing consistently that the challenge for us is to incentivize the Iraqis to take on more responsibility," Richard Danzig, one of Obama's top advisers, recently told NPR.

That incentive is a sort of tough love, says the Obama camp.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who also has been advising Obama, has also talked of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq.

"Barack Obama will work with our military commanders to begin the phased withdrawal of our troops out of Iraq in the first 16 months," Reed told delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Both Danzig and Reed are now among the top contenders to run the Pentagon under President Obama.

But can the incoming administration remove U.S. troops from Iraq that quickly?

Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that although violence is down in Iraq, Obama may find it hard to withdraw American troops in large numbers given that the security situation is still so uncertain.

"And no one can predict at this point in time exactly what's going to happen with internal civil conflict in Iraq or that al-Qaida will be fully defeated or reduced to such a low level of operations that Iraq can operate on its own," says Cordesman.

He says Obama can withdraw American forces but maybe not as many as he promised his supporters.

Obama could find himself in political peril by removing too many U.S. troops, says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

"Should he make the mistake of withdrawing so fast that he creates a worse security situation environment, you can bet that will be Exhibit A in future Republican criticism of him starting with the midterm elections in 2010," O'Hanlon says.

Afghanistan

But the real test for Obama may not be in Iraq, but on that other battlefield, says O'Hanlon.

"I think Obama's biggest challenge so far is to try to turn around the failing effort in Afghanistan," he says.

While on the campaign trail, Obama had said this failure centered on President Bush not having sent enough troops to Afghanistan. And at campaign rallies, he constantly pledged to stop the war in Iraq and turn to the other.

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

O'Hanlon says Obama's campaign focused mostly on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Occasionally, Obama raised the problem of fighters coming across the border from Pakistan.

"But that's at best only two of five key parts of this problem," O'Hanlon says.

He points to three other key factors rarely discussed by Obama or his advisers: building up Afghan forces, increasing economic development for the Afghan government and negotiating with some of the Taliban insurgents.

To help him tackle Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama will need experienced hands — like Danzig and Reed — at the Pentagon. Danzig served as Navy secretary under President Clinton and is a respected voice on national security. Reed is a West Point graduate and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Obama may reach out to Republicans on national security in an effort to tap into experience and to find political cover. Among them: Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, a longtime member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Obama advisers say one option is to keep Gates at the Pentagon for a few months or up to a year.

But Gates has brushed aside the idea of staying on in an Obama administration.

"Let me just say, I'm getting a lot of career advice and counseling than I might have anticipated," Gates said. "And I think I'll leave it at that."

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