Thursday night, president Barack Obama will have 45 minutes to convince the nation that he deserves four more years in office. Like Republican challenger Mitt Romney, he will probably spend much of his time talking about jobs, the economy, opportunity and the prospect of good things to come.
Unlike Romney, he must answer for his four years at the helm of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which became America’s longest war under his presidency.
Obama has many reasons not to want to mention the war in his convention address. For one thing, it’s unpopular: more than two-thirds of Americans think we shouldn’t be fighting it, according to a New York Times poll taken earlier this year. For another, the fight has been dealt some significant recent setbacks, with serial episodes of newly trained Afghan soldiers and police attacking and killing their U.S. and NATO partners. The death toll in these “green on blue” attacks passed 40 in August, and this week prompted a re-screening of nearly all the more than 350,000 Afghan National Security Forces and the suspension of training of new members of the Afghan Local Police.
Moreover, Obama has avoided addressing the war at all as re-election draws near. His State of the Union address contained only one paragraph devoted to operations in Afghanistan, and a recent surprise appearance at a White House Press briefing in which Obama condemned the attacks marked one of the first times the president has publicly discussed the subject.
Still, complete avoidance of the topic of the war could be a serious misstep in leadership. Next month marks the 11-year anniversary of a conflict that has claimed over 2,100 American lives, 1,480 of which were lost under his presidency, starting with the 2009 surge to southern Afghanistan.
Obama will also likely want to mention the successful special operations mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden, whose capture was the stated goal for invading Afghanistan in the first place, which may necessitate discussion of the war.
If the president does decide to talk about his war, there are many open questions he could answer, said American Enterprise Institute senior research associate Ahmad Majidyar. First of all, he told Human Events, the administration’s message that the surge was successful at weakening insurgent forces is only half-true: while some critical victories were won in southern Afghan, the eastern part of the country, home to the terrorist Haqqani network, is still a hotbed for the enemy.
“To say that the Taliban has been weakened and it’s time for withdrawal, that’s not an accurate statement,” Majidyar said.
And in fact, he said, the Taliban see the spates of green-on-blue killing as a propaganda victory, bolstering their saying “you have the watches, we have the time:” foreign forces have declared they will be out of the country eventually, and the Afghans left behind should choose sides accordingly.
Obama also has holes he must fill in regarding the Afghanistan exit strategy: the U.S. is expected to reduce its troop footprint in the country to about 68,000 by the end of this month, but it’s not clear how the drawdown might follow from then until the formal end of conflict in 2014 or how many troops might remain after that date.
Surprisingly, Romney did not address the war at all in his convention address last week, though he has previously dictated an exit strategy similar to Obama’s. But unlike Romney, Obama has four years of strategic actions and nearly 1,500 American lives to answer for.