In another step toward bringing George W. Bush's two major wars to an end, the Obama administration is planning to transition the U.S. military role in Afghanistan to mostly advising and training Afghan troops rather than engaging in large-scale combat operations.
Although the shift -- revealed to several U.S. news organizations -- does not necessarily mean a speed-up in the scheduled troop withdrawal by 2014, it does suggest that President Barack Obama wants to follow up his removal of all U.S. troops from Iraq next month with a phase-down of the decade-long Afghan War.
The two developments represent a defeat for the neocons, who have long advocated an unapologetic American imperialism especially in Muslim lands, and a victory for the American anti-war movement, which has joined with the Occupy Wall Street protests in calling for a redirection of budget priorities away from coddling bankers and spending on wars to programs to create jobs and rebuild the middle-class.
The American Left is often hesitant to see anything positive in incremental changes like the pullout from Iraq and the combat shift in Afghanistan -- preferring to focus on the dark clouds, not the silver linings -- but some anti-war activists have found reason to cheer the recent shift in the political winds.
"If we don't understand that we are beginning to move things in the right direction, many among us will lose heart and others will miscalculate," wrote anti-war activist David Swanson. "Why leak this proposal now [about reducing combat in Afghanistan]? ... What has changed is that people in the United States, and in Europe as well, are in the streets, the squares, and the parks.
"On a daily basis marches through DC streets are shouting, "How do you fix the deficit? End the wars, tax the rich!' The media coverage has changed. ... It is the passion and the action that has changed in this moment."
Besides the nationwide protests, another change is in the make-up of the Obama administration's national security hierarchy. Finally, the President has gotten rid of many holdovers from the Bush administration, such as Robert Gates at Defense and the old high command in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though some on the Left have criticized Leon Panetta -- both for his stewardship at the CIA and his statements as the new Defense Secretary -- Panetta has been a behind-the-scenes force in transitioning American war policies from large-scale conflicts to more targeted Special Forces operations.
In essence, the contingent within the Obama administration that favors limited counter-terror operations instead of major military occupations has gained the upper hand. In 2009, Gates and the military high command prevailed in the policy debates on the Afghan War, largely by resisting Obama's repeated requests for an exit strategy and proposing only an escalation.
When Obama consented to a 30,000 troop "surge" in late 2009, it was widely interpreted that the Gates/Pentagon faction (supported by Obama's hawkish Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) had won out over Vice President Joe Biden and others who opposed the large-scale escalation and wanted a concentration on Special Forces attacks against suspected terrorists.
Gates and the commanders, such as Gen. David Petraeus, then tried to put the best face on the Afghan "surge" -- much as they had on the Iraq War "surge" in 2007 -- but whatever security gains were achieved in Afghanistan were fragile at best and came at a steep cost in lives and money.
The killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2 -- overseen by CIA Director Panetta -- was hailed as an achievement of the more targeted military approach, and Gates's departure at the end of June removed one of the most effective advocates for "surge" strategies.
Gates's replacement, Panetta, quickly disappointed some on the Left with his spirited defense of the Pentagon's budget, but it may be a case of watching what he does, not what he says. He bucked the generals when he began talking about a modest stay-behind force in Iraq of only 3,000 to 5,000 "trainers" instead of at least 18,000 as the commanders wanted.
Again, some on the Left decried Panetta for even proposing this modest training force, but that missed the point. Once the number had been reduced to several thousand, the value of such a small contingent was quickly outweighed by the political and security risks involved in leaving those troops behind.
President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki could then cite a disagreement over whether the U.S. troops would have immunity from prosecution to settle on a complete withdrawal.
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