Peter Beinart brilliantly muses on the presidential politics of Afghanistan:
Essentially, [Obama] played rope-a-dope, giving Petraeus & Co. the chance to prove what one suspects Obama already believed: that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan had no chance.
Finally, a Democrat who knows how to play the politics of national security and win. But political victories can carry a human price. According to iCasualties, more than 1,300 Americans have died in Afghanistan since Obama took office, more than twice the number that died under George W. Bush. And since it is highly unlikely that Afghanistan’s future will be significantly different because America withdrew its combat troops in 2013 instead of 2009, one can reasonably ask: what did the United States accomplish during those four years that can possibly justify their deaths? It’s disturbing that Barack Obama doesn’t have a good answer to that question. It’s even more disturbing that politically, he doesn’t need one.
Some on the left argue that these 1,300 American deaths were not only needless, but inexcusable. Obama, they say, should have begun pulling our combat troops out of Afghanistan on Day One, notwithstanding his campaign pledge to beef up our efforts there, and to finish what W. so abruptly abandoned in favor of an even greater monstrosity. Our Afghanistan mission was always doomed--few among us ever doubted that, including, and probably more so than others, President Obama--and for the United States to squander more lives on a catastrophic fait accompli was merely an exercise in both imperial hubris and political cowardice.
That, anyway, is one powerful argument, and a rather familiar one. The counterargument, however, is at least as powerful, even if less frequently argued. As Beinart suggests, an early-2009 withdrawal would have brought eruptions of "political consequences [that] might have been brutal"; and those eruptions might have been so violently burrowing as to doom Obama's presidency, and his reelection. Today we might have been facing a quite different fait accompli: a Mitt Romney--or some other neocon--presidency, brimming with imperially muscular imbecilities and, ultimately, far more than 1,300 American deaths, in some other godforsaken wasteland.
I don't know which argument is weightier. No one does, because there's no way to know, because there's no way to travel back in time and reset the clock and its circumstances. My instincts, however, tell me that Obama played an exceptionally bad hand as best he could; and what's more, that those lost, 1,300 American lives were not lost in vain--not, indeed, if they helped prevent another W.-like presidency.
I do know one thing for sure, though. I am damn glad I didn't have to make the decision.