Afghanistan withdrawal reaction could decide Barack Obama’s electoral fate
Voters have begun to question the need for presence after Osama’s death and many politicians are pushing for faster exit
Barack Obama’s fate in next year’s presidential election rests partly on the reaction to the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan, a war that the American public has started to decisively reject.
The war is the longest in US history but the public has supported it – in contrast with Iraq. But since the death of Osama bin Laden, voters have started to question the need for a US military presence.
The shift is echoed both in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans have made a united call for a faster withdrawal, and by almost all the Republican presidential hopefuls. Both parties are questioning the billions of dollars the war is costing during a time of economic hardship.
A Pew Research Centre survey on Tuesday showed support for withdrawal at an all-time high, with 56% saying troops should be brought back as soon as possible. It was the first time it recorded a majority in favour. Other polls over the last month show a similar trend.
“The polls are significant. The dam has broken. There was more bad news from Afghanistan, more deaths and President (Hamid) Karzai keeps saying insane things. That is why you even have the Republicans coming out against it. You know it’s over when the Republican presidential candidates are calling for withdrawal. People are tired of it,” said Larry Sabato, politics professor at the University of Virginia.
Afghanistan was not an issue in 2008 whereas Iraq was, helping anti-war Obama to defeat Hillary Clinton, and to mobilise activists in the election itself. Afghanistan is a key concern for the Democratic grassroots left, many of whom have been calling for a quick and total pullout. These are the volunteers that the Obama campaign needs next year.
A house vote last month calling on Obama to set out a withdrawal timetable signalled a growing urgency. Democrats and Republicans voted together, losing by only 204 votes to 215. A quarter of the Senate wrote to Obama calling for a significant withdrawal. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, called for 15,000 troops to leave by the end of this year.
Obama’s Republican rivals are intent on making it an election issue, seeking to illustrate a clear divide between them and the president. Support for an exit among conservatives is strong: more than 60% of Tea Party activists want troops out now.
The latest Republican to declare he is seeking the party nomination to take on Obama, Jon Huntsman, until this year the US ambassador to China, told ABC News this week that Obama’s plan was too slow and, as president, he would pursue a more aggressive policy.
“Nine years and 50 days into this conflict, [with] the money that has been spent on both conflicts well over $1 trillion, I think we have to say, ‘What have we accomplished?'” Huntsman said.
The last Republican White House contender, John McCain, who cautions against a rapid exit, criticised the Republican field this week for what he described as “an isolationist strain”.
Both Sabato and Professor Michael McDonald, a specialist in voting patterns at George Mason University, see a close race in 2012 if the economy continues to meander, with Sabato saying Obama might end up as a one-term president.
McDonald said whether Afghanistan is an issue depends on the scale of the drawdown. “If there is a significant drawdown, by next year people will think it is going in the right direction,” he said. But he cautioned: “If there is still a sizeable presence and Americans are being killed, it will be an issue.”