President Obama faces a widening credibility gap in convincing Americans that his strategy in Afghanistan is worth the costs. That gap only worsened Tuesday with a claim by the Afghan election commission that a majority of votes in the Aug. 20 presidential contest went to incumbent Hamid Karzai.
Ballot fraud was so widespread during the election that the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission has ordered a recount. Unless a credible count is conducted, Afghanistan will lack a legitimate government, making it difficult to achieve Mr. Obama's key goal of handing over security to the Afghan Army to suppress the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Most indicators in Afghanistan are declining, with the Taliban gaining strength and record highs in monthly tallies of US soldiers killed. Polls in the US show little stomach for a war that has lasted since the post-9/11 invasion. In Europe and Canada, support is even lower, especially after Friday's killing of dozens of Afghan civilians by NATO airstrikes ordered by a German commander.
If Obama wants success in a war that he says is fundamental to US defense, he'll need to persuade Americans that he can shore up Afghanistan's faltering democracy and its still-weak military. In coming days, he is expected to receive recommendations for more troops from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander chosen by Obama to lead the war. And the White House plans to release a list of ways to measure progress in Afghanistan.
Obama should ensure that his benchmarks for success and the number of US troops is based on the threat that Al Qaeda would pose if it gains a strong foothold in Afghanistan. That threat already exists in Pakistan, where the Army has finally made an effort to attack Islamic terrorists. And success in Afghanistan will mean the US could continue to make cross-border attacks on Al Qaeda in Pakistan, where the terrorist group still plans attacks around the world.
Soon after entering the White House, the president did raise US troop levels in Afghanistan by 21,000 to reach 68,000 later this year. (His commanders asked for 30,000.) Now with a stronger Taliban and a corrupted Afghan election, the need is even more urgent for smart deployments of more troops to guard villages and ensure the country is stabilized with aid and development – a counterinsurgency strategy known as "clear, hold, build."
For the moment, though, the immediate focus should be on a vote recount. If President Karzai did receive less than 50 percent of the vote, as a recount may likely reveal, the US and other Western powers should step up efforts to make sure the runoff election is not corrupted.
Obama has two big fronts in this war: one in Afghanistan and one at home in better explaining his goals and tactics.
He needs to wage a campaign on both fronts more vigorously. Retreat is not an option if it means Al Qaeda will find a home in Afghanistan. But it might be the only option if Americans further withdraw support of the war.