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Calls for Afghanistan Withdrawal in Wake of Bin Laden Death Increase

I admitted to a little surprise with how quickly leading Democrats pounced on the idea that the killing of Osama bin Laden should lead to a reexamining of the war in Afghanistan and an accelerated withdrawal. But I think I’ve figured it out. You have a lot of low-information voters and constituents who check in on politics very sparingly. They heard about the bin Laden killing, and they naturally saw his presence in the region as the reason for our war in Afghanistan. That changed quite a while ago, but not to the low-information voters. So in addition to those who are just fatigued by war, you have this whole new group of people who don’t understand why we would continue to fight if the mission has been accomplished. There’s a credibility gap there that can be exploited.

And antiwar Democrats plan to use the fact to their advantage:

Anti-war members have one advantage, and it’s a considerable one. The public is with them. Last month, a Pew Research Poll found that only 44 percent of Americans wanted troops to stay in Afghanistan “until the situation has stabilized.” Fifty percent of Americans disagreed. Three years ago, when Obama was campaigning for an Afghan surge, the numbers were 61 and 32. Around the same time, a Washington Post/ABC News Poll had 64 percent of voters saying the war was “not worth fighting.” That was the highest the number had ever been.

There is no candy-coating it: Support for the war has fallen off steadily. After Bin Laden, we’re not likely to see a new wellspring of pro-war feeling. On Monday, war critics beat them to the punch in framing and describing what had happened in Abbottabad.

“Obviously, the operation that was successful did not require the military occupation of a nation,” said Tom Andrews, the former Maine congressman who directs Win Without War. “It required good intelligence. It required the capacity to execute a precision-based operation. And it demonstrates the sort of precision needed to fight terrorism. This is coming on the eve of the decision of the president to do an accelerated transition from Afghanistan.”

The entire counter-insurgency strategy to deny safe havens, over a targeted counter-terrorism strategy, has been made ridiculous by the bin Laden killing.

Obviously the relative success of this strategy depends on the commander-in-chief, and he’s shown no inclination to scale back the effort in Afghanistan (or Iraq, for that matter, with the obvious attempts to extend the US presence). Obama does have the pretext to change his view, and he can do it in July, when an inflection point and some manner of withdrawals were planned anyway.

Public opinion is the wild card here. The President has a re-election to win. A couple members of the Republican field oppose the war, though not yet the favorites. And I doubt the GOP will nominate a war opponent. This still could be a wedge issue for Obama. He just has to use it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen