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Iraq withdrawal leaves Afghanistan questions

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Iraq withdrawal leaves Afghanistan questions

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

One down, one to go. By sticking to a promise to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, President Obama also wants to shore up support for the increasingly shaky war in Afghanistan.

Obama came to office promising to wind down the Iraq war. By the end of this month, only 50,000 troops from a total of 144,000 will remain, mostly in support roles, he told a veterans group.

The smaller numbers ease the stretched U.S. military and shift the burden of security to a weak Iraqi central government. Call it a mission semi-accomplished.

The president also touched on another sore subject, the Afghanistan conflict. Any comfort taken by withdrawing from Iraq is offset by Afghan casualty counts, which hit a new high in July.

As troop levels drop in Iraq, the numbers are rising in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military presence has grown from 33,000 when Obama took office to 96,000 by next month. His team has adopted a loose timetable to begin withdrawals next year, a timetable that's uncertain while war planners and political advisers debate the issue.

His remarks were timed for a difficult moment. He was obliged to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal for his impolitic remarks in June and then last week endured the splash of critical war reports released by the WikiLeaks website.

In his speech, Obama repeated his belief that walking away from Afghanistan would give al Qaeda and its allies a home base.

But his own party is turning cold on the conflict. The White House won $33 billion in extra war funding last week despite opposition from 114 members of the House of Representatives - 102 of them Democrats - who dislike the way the Afghanistan conflict is going.

The president - and the U.S. military - deserve credit for winding down the Iraq conflict. Pushing the Afghan conflict in the same direction remains a grave challenge.

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