By Jules Witcover

With the American combat involvement in Iraq finally winding down, even as it continues to surge in Afghanistan, President Obama is engaged in a political juggling act on which the fate of his presidency might eventually hinge.

In his speech to a Disabled American Veterans convention, Obama strove to convince the country he is living up to his 2008 campaign pledge to end the American combat role in the two Middle East wars -- in Iraq by the end of this month and in Afghanistan by about a year from now.

By Aug. 31, he said, the 141,000 U.S. forces in Iraq when he took office will have been reduced to 50,000, all of them limited to training Iraqi security forces and protecting American military trainers, contractors and facilities left behind. The residue is to leave by the end of 2011, in keeping with an agreement with the al-Maliki government negotiated by former President George W. Bush.

Obama, without mentioning that he opposed both the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the U.S. troop surge carried out by his Republican predecessor, boasted of the drawdown under his watch "as promised and on schedule."

In the American military's juvenile penchant for giving its wars fancy names, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is being changed to "Operation New Dawn," although it's uncertain that dawn has yet come. Internal squabbling continues over the leadership of the regime in Baghdad in the wake of the parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Afghanistan, however, is an entirely different matter.

The U.S. troop surge that has not yet reached its peak of 30,000 more troops was ordered by Obama himself, to much chagrin in his own party. And while the president said the American effort there also is on course, doubts remain, particularly in Congress, where 102 House Democrats voted against the most recent war funding bill.

"We will continue to face huge challenges in Afghanistan," Obama acknowledged in his speech. "But it's important that the American people know that we are making progress and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable."

In remarks a few days earlier, Vice President Joe Biden more pointedly reiterated that the administration focus is to seek out and eliminate al-Qaida terrorists harbored in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. He insisted emphatically that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is not nation building, as it appeared to be under Bush, with his emphasis on establishing and even spreading democracy in the Middle East.

This continued harping on a return to the original rationale for sending American forces into Afghanistan -- in retribution for the 9/11 attacks by terrorists harbored there -- gives the Obama administration a rationale for eventual withdrawal short of what Bush used to call "victory."

Biden was a leading advocate of returning to that mission in last winter's long internal agonizing over the Obama policy in Afghanistan. He continues to say that the limited objective still governs, and that the announced date of a year from now for a start of a U.S. troop withdrawal remains valid.

However, the new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both insisted that there is flexibility in that date, depending on the military and security conditions on the ground at the time.

But one political purpose of setting a withdrawal timetable was to pressure the regime of President Hamid Karzai to get its house in order in the fight against the Taliban insurgency. Another was to signal that Obama was serious in winding down the U.S. involvement, a growing desire within his own party in Congress.

Meanwhile, the Republican minority there is poised to charge Democrats with abandoning an essential national security mission if Obama holds to the timetable for a start to the American troop withdrawal next summer. Once again, the old soft-on-defense rap against the Democrats looms ahead.

Already Gates and others are emphasizing that the timetable calls for a beginning only. But a mere token pullout will not sit well with the antiwar constituency that was an important element in Obama's election in 2008.


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© Jules Witcover

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