In 8:00 pm ET speech on Afghanistan, expect Obama -- in some form or fashion -- to declare success in defeating al Qaeda in the region… While the U.S. military might not like the surge withdrawal, Obama has more political leeway than ever before… Huntsman’s sluggish start yesterday and his stronger appearance on “TODAY” this morning… Yet he was unable to answer why his family’s Huntsman Corporation employs more in China and India than it does in the U.S… Pawlenty goes on the air in Iowa, meaning he’s all-in for the Ames Straw Poll… Our anti-CW on Iowa and New Hampshire… More rough news for Newt… And Huntsman stumps in South Carolina on Day 2 of his official launch.
*** Declaring success: When President Obama announced his troop surge in Afghanistan back in Dec. 2009, he said that the “overarching goal” was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The president went on to say, “To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives… We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” In his 8:00 pm ET speech tonight on Afghanistan, Obama is expected to essentially respond to that paragraph from 2009 and say that progress has been achieved on all three fronts. And he might even say publicly what officials have been privately touting: that al Qaeda has been operationally defeated and essentially destroyed in the Af-Pak region, with the bin Laden kill being the symbolic exclamation point.
*** Obama’s political cover: The troop withdrawal that the president will announce concerns the 30,000 surge troops, not the total force in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that high-ranking officials in the U.S. military, including Gen. David Petraeus, want those surge troops to stay a bit longer there. But politically, Obama has more leeway than he’s ever had before. Just listen to what Mitt Romney said about Afghanistan in last week’s GOP debate. And listen to what Jon Huntsman said on “TODAY” this morning: “We can probably be a little more aggressive [on withdrawal] over the next year… What we need now is a healthy dose of nation-building at home.” One additional point: Tonight’s speech probably buys Obama a little more space on Libya. Why? Because, for another day or two, it puts THAT conflict on A4, and that's all the U.S. wants now is time as they continue to believe they are thisclose to forcing Khadaffy out.
*** But still a challenge for the president: Yet even though Obama can declare success regarding al Qaeda, and even though he has more GOP political cover on withdrawal, Afghanistan remains a challenge for him. As the Washington Post notes, “His prime-time address must remind a skeptical electorate and a concerned Congress that the country’s longest war remains worth fighting — and funding — for several more years.” The New York Times adds, “[B]ehind his words will be an acute awareness of what $1.3 trillion in spending on two wars in the past decade has meant at home: a ballooning budget deficit and a soaring national debt at a time when the economy is still struggling to get back on its feet.”