Saturday, December 12, 2009

New troop deployment and Obama's approval rating

ALMOST a year into his tenure as President, Obama is getting bogged with problems that are making it difficult for him to back his promise for change with results. One of the problems is in Afghanistan where he is finding it difficult to finish the unfinished war of his predecessor. Another major setback is the economy. A combination of greed of leaders of the financial sector, lack of government regulation and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq/Afghanistan wars during the Bush era (total cost of the wars is now getting close to US 1 trillion) has pushed the economy into the worst recession for decades.

In Iraq the USA seems to have come to terms with the insurgency, as it appears at this point in time. In Afghanistan, however, the war against terror has not gone as expected. Years of neglect to finish the war there to attack Iraq during the previous administration has allowed the Taliban to re-group, forcing President Obama to send 20,000 troops there in March although it did not help in turn the tide. In a speech in West Point Military Academy on December 1st given to 4000 cadets (many soon to be deployed to Afghanistan), and telecast nationwide, the President announced to send 30,000 troops over a period of six months. By the end of this year, US troops in Afghanistan would number 98,000. There are 29,950 additional US troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command of 64,500 troops, majority supplied by the NATO member countries.

The President's speech is being seen as a defining one for his Presidency. Although most Americans are wary of foreign wars, the positive turn in Iraq has enhanced their patience. Since the request made by Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, the Commander of US troops in Afghanistan, in August for additional troops to offset the gains made by the Taliban in recent years, it was widely expected that the President would commit the additional troops. Hence, the announcement did not come as a surprise. In a survey by CNN soon after the speech, 62% of Americans favoured the additional troop deployment. The speech is, however, being criticized because of the July 2011 deadline the President also announced for the beginning of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. In the same CNN poll, 58% considered the withdrawal date to be a bad idea because this will give the Taliban the option to wait out that deadline instead of fighting the strengthened US presence.

In a hearing by the Senate Armed Forces Committee a day after the West Point speech, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates was grilled by Senator McCain, a member of the Committee, on the precise withdrawal date. The Secretary told the Committee that the administration would review ground reality in December, 2010 but has not been specific whether that would or would not delay the withdrawal date. He reiterated the conviction of General McChrystal that the additional troops would be enough to reverse Taliban gains and allow the 170,000 plus Afghans to be available at that time to successfully handle the transfer of security responsibilities. He also stressed that the July, 2011 date would mark the beginning of the withdrawal, not the completion of withdrawal. General McChrystal also emphasized that the withdrawal date is a flexible one, not “absolute”, making US presence in Afghanistan open ended.

McCain's grilling notwithstanding, most Americans want the US to finish its task in Afghanistan. In fact, the Senator himself talked to Secretary Gates to ensure that the US does not leave its job in Afghanistan unfinished. Americans supported President Bush almost totally when US invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Talibans, who hosted them, as revenge for the 9/11 killings. Thus, they would not want Afghanistan to go back to the Taliban, even though till date 974 US men/women in uniform have died there. President Obama may have made an error in judgment, thinking that a firm date of withdrawal would please Americans, on assumption that they want the troops to return home. This error is explained by the fact that 58% Americans said that declaration of the withdrawal date is a bad decision.

Apart from the decision of sending more troops, Obama's overall approval rating as a President has fallen to 48% in a CNN poll taken after the West Point speech. This is the first time the rating has fallen below 50% in his tenure. It is the economy that has brought Obama to this position along with his opponents not letting any excuse go by without attacking him. Even his recent courtesy bow to the Emperor while on a trip to Japan has been termed a “bow gate”; a criticism that would normally not have been made but now finds acceptance because the economy has not turned around. The thousands of jobs that are being lost every month are at the heart of the concerns of most Americans. The President, conscious of the job situation, has held a job summit at the White House and has followed it with a Town hall Meeting in Pennsylvania after making his West Point speech on his Afghan Policy.

The economy is thus the key reason that is pulling the President's rating down at the moment. However, by most predictions, the country is on course for economic recovery which is now a matter of time and the President's ratings are going to bounce back to more a comfortable zone by the end of next year when his administration sits down to review the ground reality in Afghanistan. Although job losses have continued the 11,000 jobs lost in November have been the smallest, leading many economists to predict that the trend is on the reverse mode.

The President's future and the chances of delivering on his promise of change will depend on foreign affairs and not the economy. History of foreign intervention in Afghanistan does not go with the optimism that the President and his General have placed on the results of increased troop deployment. The US partner in this offensive is Pakistan, which has its own domestic problems, some insurmountable, to dedicate itself fully to President Obama's Afghan Policy. The Karzai administration that has taken over power for a second term amidst controversy is beset with a variety of problems of which endemic corruption is the most obvious. The Karzai administration will also not be much of a help in implementing the Afghan Policy successfully by readying itself for the take over of the security responsibilities to allow the US troops to start returning home after July 2011.

President Obama's current predicament with foreign affairs and the economy are problems he has inherited from his predecessor. But as President, he has no other recourse but to own his predecessor's actions as that of the nation and treat them as issues of his administration. On the economy, the President has the advantage of hindsight to help his administration overcome the current economic problems. In his recent Pennsylvania Town Hall meeting, President Obama said that his administration will ensure that the regulations that were not used to keep the financial institutions in place will now be enforced proactively with newly added safeguards so that the country not only comes out of the recession but also ensure that such a predicament never occurs again. Afghanistan is going to be the big problem for Obama by the time he prepares for election for a second term. The Taliban, as many in the US and particularly Obama's opponents are suggesting, would probably wait out the July, 2011 deadline while engaging the US troops in limited scale to add to the death toll of 974.

The NATO countries have not matched USA's decision to send more troops. The US has been expecting 10,000 additional NATO troops but so far has a commitment of 7,000. France and Germany, the largest contributors, are unsure about sending additional troops. Afghanistan thus could become a hot potato in President Obama's hands.

Published in The Daily Star, December 12, 2009

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