President Obama is about to make one of the most significant decisions of his young presidency—and certainly one of the most politically perilous—as he determines what to do next in the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan.
The question has taken on special urgency because the news from Afghanistan is getting worse. U.S. casualties are rising, with 216 fatalities so far this year, compared with 155 in all of 2008. The anti-American Taliban is making a comeback. Corruption is widespread. The government in Kabul is unpopular and ineffective.
The situation has grown so dire that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has sent a confidential assessment to Defense Secretary Robert Gates that says failure to beef up U.S forces in the next year "will likely result in failure" of the entire war effort, according to the Washington Post. Obama is reviewing the report but says he has come to no conclusions yet on escalation.
Still, he has been sending mixed messages. Recently, he called Afghanistan a "war of necessity," not a war of choice—echoing his campaign statements from 2008 that he would give new and immediate emphasis to victory there. He said that it was vital to prevent Muslim extremists from taking over broader swaths of the region and to stop terrorists from creating staging areas for future attacks on the West. Yet he told talk-show host David Letterman last week that he will carefully evaluate his options and won't rush despite the urgency of the situation. Obama said he will avoid the mistakes made during the Bush administration, when "our strategy drifted. . . . We didn't have a clear sense of what it was we were trying to accomplish."
Earlier this year, Obama authorized a gradual surge of an additional 21,000 troops into Afghanistan. This decision is expected to lift the total to 68,000 by November. There also are 39,000 soldiers from other NATO countries in the war zone.
Conservatives are keeping up the pressure for a tougher approach. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio issued a statement saying that "General McChrystal's assessment makes clear that we need additional troops to implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy to secure Afghanistan against a radical terrorist threat." Boehner, along with other conservatives, urged Obama to follow the general's recommendations without delay. Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the Republican Study Committee, added: "Whose opinion matters more here—commanders on the ground or liberal war protesters? Stay tuned."
Conservatives say Obama can't afford to back down. They argue that the United States has already invested too many lives and billions of dollars to back out now and allow the people whom George W. Bush called the "evildoers" to triumph. Foreign governments respect America the most when the United States keeps its resolve "through thick and thin," a GOP strategist says, and that resolve seems to be eroding under Obama. This could be a harbinger of much harsher attacks from his critics if Obama rejects the military's recommendations. GOP strategists say it could revive the Democratic Party's weak image on national security, which has been a problem for the party for many years.
Meanwhile, Obama's antiwar base is worried that he will lead America into a quagmire. Many see his choice as similar to the ones Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made early in the Vietnam era. They deepened American intervention and put the nation on the path to one of the most bloody, costly, and divisive wars in its history.
Many House liberals who oppose the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq will be very difficult for Obama to persuade, and without them it may be impossible for him to get the funding and support needed to greatly increase U.S. involvement. Meanwhile, the public has soured on the Afghanistan conflict, with 58 percent opposing it, according to a mid-September poll by CNN, and 56 percent unwilling to send in more troops, according to a recent McClatchy-Ipsos survey.
Corrected on : Corrected on 10/02/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Brian Straessle's place of employment. He is a spokesperson for the Republican Study Committee.