Thursday, June 30, 2011

Obama weighed military and political risk for Afghan plan

President Barack Obama's plan for pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan will intensify risks in the thick of next year's fighting season, but Obama was right to factor in waning support at home for the war, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Reuters.

Gates, who steps down on Thursday after four and a half years as the U.S. defense chief, said Obama's advisers had put forward different options for gradually shrinking the 100,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan, where after almost a decade of war the Taliban remains a deadly, resilient enemy.

While the Pentagon's top brass argued for keeping the extra 33,000 troops Obama sent to Afghanistan until the end of 2012, Gates said, other advisers wanted them out as early as April, as patience wears thin for a war that now costs more than $110 billion a year.

Obama ultimately decided, in a move announced last week, to remove 10,000 troops this year and the remaining 23,000 troops of the surge force by September 2012.

"The president had a real tight-wire to walk in terms of balancing military risk and political risk," Gates said in an interview on the eve of his departure from the Pentagon.

"It wouldn't make any difference if the president said keep them there another two years if the Congress wouldn't vote the money ... Even some Republicans are beginning to talk about coming out sooner," Gates said.

The debate over the initial drawdown from Afghanistan has highlighted divisions between the White House and the Pentagon, where military leaders worry they will not have enough time and resources to solidify the headway they have made in pushing the Taliban out of strategic areas of southern Afghanistan.

Obama's top military advisers, including Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, were unusually candid in critiquing Obama's plan. They said they had initially been uncomfortable with an accelerated drawdown but ultimately backed it.


Under Obama's plan, most of the 23,000 troops leaving next year will likely come home during the 2012 summer fighting season, a time when the Taliban and other militants typically step up their attacks.

Yet Gates said Obama was right to be mindful of political concerns. Opposition is mounting in Congress to keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan as lawmakers face pressure to cut spending, and support for the war has plummeted since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.

"In terms of political sustainability at home, and keeping the risk as low as possible at the end of the summer, (Obama) struck about the right balance," Gates said.

Some 68,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan, focusing in large part on mentoring Afghan forces.

But security remains dire in much of Afghanistan's east and high-profile attacks continue to rattle even areas of the south and the capital Kabul. A coordinated attack on a landmark Kabul hotel by Taliban suicide bombers killed eight Afghans and one foreigner this week.

Gates said that after Obama's decision, commanders were now looking at options for thinning U.S. forces and seeking to mitigate increased risks.

"It may be that they can fill the gap with Afghan forces. They're just working their way through this now," he said.

Gates, who has steered the United States through two wars under two presidents, has also sought along with other U.S. officials to nudge Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan to crack down on militants who launch attacks from its tribal areas.

Gates said Washington continued to pay for historical mistakes with Pakistan, such as the decision to walk away from the region after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and imposing sanctions on Pakistan in response to its nuclear ambitions.

While Gates said the Obama administration had "bent over backward" to improve ties with Pakistan, the relationship remains tense. Islamabad has terminated a U.S. military training mission there.

"We all wish it were in a better place, but on the same token this relationship has ebbed and flowed for decades," Gates said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Roadmap for the White House in 2012: Obama's Electoral Chess

"Running mate could be checkmate"

There is much focus on the electoral math from the point of view of the GOP, but if you consider it from Barack Obama's perspective it changes a bit. With lackluster national poll numbers and an economy that just won't turn over, the White House must be wondering if it's really worth fighting for all the states they won in 2008.

The classic chessboard of black and white pieces has transformed to an electoral map of red and blue.**

Last week I laid out my reasoning for why it's unlikely Obama will again steal Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado out of the Republican column.

To review, this makes the landscape Obama 310, GOP candidate 228.

As some have suggested, right now Obama is perhaps running more against the economy than the GOP. Nearly every poll since Obama's inauguration has shown that jobs and the economy are the number one issue on the minds of Americans. Our own national poll here at Suffolk University found that 46 percent of likely voters feel that the economy is actually getting worse.

On the state level, when it comes to electoral votes in play, Ohio and Florida will be key states for Obama to win if he's going to hold onto the White House. If both of these states flip Republican it's all over for Obama -- that's 47 electoral votes, making the map Obama 263, GOP candidate 275.

And, in these states, attitudes towards the economy aren't too bright.

Florida's 29 electoral votes are certainly in a great deal of jeopardy right now. A mid April Suffolk U. poll of Florida found 88 percent of registered voters said they did not believe the recession is over in the Sunshine State.

Ohio's 18 electoral votes are no safer. While it's certainly not among the highest in the country, the Buck Eye state's 8.9 percent unemployment rate is nearly on par with the national average.

Worse still, in 2010 both states elected Republican governors, albeit by razor-thin margins. Bottom line, it's going to be a very close race in these states.

What could Obama do to shore up his strength in these states in lieu of an improved economy? It's not out of the question for him to consider a new candidate for Vice President. Not unlike the Republican road to the White House I presented last week, to secure Ohio or Florida, Obama could greatly benefit with help from a VP who could deliver either of those states.

Joe Biden is a team player, and perhaps better than anyone he understands that every piece on the chess board should be in the best position to mate. Should his talks with the Gang of Five (formerly the Gang of Six) fall apart, he could take the political fall for failure and give Obama the license to pick a new running mate.

Unlike his 2008 run against Hillary Clinton, today Obama owns foreign policy success, and a VP with strong domestic credibility could shore up his campaign and balance the ticket.

The GOP move:

1 ) If the GOP nominee picks someone like Marco Rubio, Obama must employ the "Hispanic Defense" (similar to the Sicilian Defense in chess) and concede Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, but protect himself in all important Ohio and win New Hampshire to give him four more years.

2) If the GOP doesn't pick Rubio, Obama would be prudent to employ the "Florida attack" instead. Locking up Florida, and splitting states like New Mexico and Arizona also gives Obama the win.

When it comes to potential VP candidates for the President, by the numbers Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the clear choice. Over the last year Suffolk polls in Florida, Nevada, Ohio and New Hampshire have recorded stratosphere-like favorability -- far beyond Barack Obama's with strength among Independents. She's the combination of the first two strategies above -- popular with Hispanics, strong in Ohio, a generational rock star in Florida. "Rook to the last Republican row." Checkmate.

However, the reality is that it's unlikely Clinton is willing to continue playing second fiddle to Obama. With whispers about tension between the State Department and the White House and rumors about the possibility of Hillary Clinton moving to the World Bank, it's unlikely this scenario would ever happen.

If Obama were to pick a new VP it's tough to say who might be a suitable candidate, but they'd need to be able to help him play out one of the above strategies. Who do you think might be a good candidate for the VP position?