Washington It is now as certain as anything can be in politics that 2010 will be a painful year for Democrats — a year of high unemployment, staggering deficits and a growing list of casualties from an unresolved war.
Inside the Obama administration, that fact — and its implication of a sharply reduced congressional majority — is acknowledged. Strategy sessions now turn to the chance of curing some or all of these liabilities before the president faces the voters in 2012.
The economic calamity has been evident for more than a year. The housing bubble collapsed before Obama was even elected, and the financial system was on its knees before he took the oath of office. The national debt exploded with the passage of necessary fiscal rescue efforts and it has been painfully clear for months that recovery will be slow and grudging — and nearly devoid of job growth.
This week, we learned that Afghanistan — the other nightmare he inherited — will also test the nation’s patience and its capacity for absorbing pain. Obama’s long-awaited speech laying out his latest effort to formulate a policy for that eight-year-old war demonstrated nothing so clearly as his inability to escape the miserable choices he has been dealt.
He bowed to the inevitable in agreeing to send 30,000 more American troops to fight the Taliban and their terrorist allies. He had long acknowledged that the presence of al-Qaida, the growing strength of the Taliban and the shakiness of the nuclear-armed regime in neighboring Pakistan all dictated that the United States could not afford to lose its leverage with the people running Kabul.
Corrupt and inefficient as they may be, they are less of a threat than the Taliban would be. And so we must prop them up. If Obama were to acquiesce in the return of those who harbored the 9/11 attackers, even the divided and obstructionist GOP could be ushered back into power.
Obama’s rhetoric was skilled enough that many of his listeners Tuesday thought they heard him promise that the buildup of forces in Afghanistan he has ordered will be suspended as early as 2011. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is incapable of dissembling, quickly made it clear that the withdrawal will begin — not end — that year and only if battlefield conditions permit.
Meantime, U.S. troops will be fighting the enemy in the most perilous parts of Afghanistan through all of next year — and probably well beyond.
Obama’s reference to his hope that 2011 can see a reversal of the escalation he has ordered was interpreted broadly as a way of putting pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up his corrupt government and start delivering services for his people.
This may be the ultimate aim, but the immediate effect is more likely to be felt by the American military. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American and NATO commander, got almost everything he asked for from the commander in chief, but one more thing beside: an implicit timetable that places an enormous strain on him and everyone in his command to show quick results.
Setting 2011 as the targeted turnaround time for American forces in Afghanistan may make it a bit less painful for dovish Democrats to accept what Obama has done. But it leaves McChrystal and his troops almost no margin for error. It will be mid-2010 before the last of the 30,000 new troops are in the country. And longer than that before the buildup and training of Afghan forces can be accomplished.
Meantime, the Taliban can continue to exploit public frustration with the dysfunctional Afghan government, recruiting new fighters perhaps as fast as McChrystal can woo people away.
This kind of patient struggle for the allegiance of survival-minded people is difficult under the best of circumstances. When the orders are to get it done now, it becomes almost impossible.
It is well that Obama does not panic. Holding things together will be a constant test through every day of 2010.