President Obama’s highly anticipated announcement Wednesday night that U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan will return to pre-surge levels within a year was welcome.
In a televised speech, Obama said 10,000 troops will come home by December and 23,000 more will return by next summer. A late 2009 surge of 30,000 soldiers raised the troop level to about 100,000. “The light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance,” he said.
Although Obama’s military commanders wanted a slower pace of withdrawal, it’s doubtful that most Americans would have reacted negatively had Obama announced an even larger return of U.S. troops for next month.
After more than 10 years of soldiers coming home maimed or in body bags, and billions being spent to improve the lives of Afghans and Iraqis while this country falls deeper into debt, Americans are war weary. That fact has been quantified in most recent polls.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this month showed 54 percent of Americans no longer think the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, and 73 percent believe a “substantial number” of troops should be brought home this summer.
In a Pew Research Center survey this month, 56 percent of respondents said U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible, rather than wait until that country is stable. That’s up from 32 percent who said leave ASAP in 2008.
A CBS News poll this month showed 64 percent want to see a decrease in U.S. troops, compared with 24 percent in 2009. A CNN poll showed 62 percent of Americans now oppose the war, up from 46 percent in 2009.
Such numbers have helped fertilize bipartisanship that other issues before Congress can only dream of achieving. The country’s antiwar mood is further fueled by a larger conversation about the proper U.S. role in other military operations, including Libya.
Rep. Joe Heck (R., Nev.) has introduced a bill to stop funding the Libya mission in 30 days. Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.) said, “We need to worry more about our own affairs at home and stop trying to police the world.”
That sentiment is echoed by Democrats such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin 3d, who said, “We can no longer, in good conscience, cut services and programs at home, raise taxes, or — and this is very important — raise the debt ceiling in order to fund nation-building in Afghanistan.”
Noting the slaying of Osama bin Laden and the growth of health and educational opportunities for Afghans, Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said it’s time to change strategies and spend less on the war. “At a time of economic austerity in the U.S., the $120 billion-per-year price tag is unsustainable,” he said.
That’s how most Americans feel, which is why Obama could have been bolder. The case that smaller troop withdrawals will make a significant difference even though all U.S. troops are scheduled to come home in 2014 is a very difficult one to make, given the evidence so far.