'Obama's war' in Afghanistan could be politically precarious

Obama has a fair amount of public support for the war in Afghanistan. But given palpable public war weariness after eight years, that could quickly erode if things do not go well.

Kevin Frayer/AP
Marines patrol after a gun battle with insurgents in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on Saturday.

As 1,000 US marines launched a combat operation behind enemy lines dubbed “Cobra’s Anger” this weekend, it became clear that President Obama now “owns” the war in Afghanistan.

Though there was high symbolism of that fact in his speech at West Point Tuesday, Obama took control of the war months ago, escalating US military assets and aggressiveness in Afghanistan.

He’s more than doubled the number of US troops there since he took office. And as the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi reported, he’s greatly increased the US commitment compared to NATO and other non-US forces.

At the same time, Obama has authorized an increase in the use of pilotless drone aircraft to strike targets -- typically Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives -- along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, according to a New York Times report.

NATO countries have pledged some 7,000 more troops for the Afghanistan mission. But the US, under the “surge” Obama announced this past week, will send more than four times that many additional forces. Perhaps just as significant, US soldiers and marines are concentrated in the most hotly-contested areas, where enemy Taliban activity is strongest.

It’s a high-risk situation, not least of all because of the logistical challenges. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is landlocked. It offers no easy access to the war zone for troops and equipment, which must be flown in or hauled overland through insecure mountain passes -- starting from Pakistan, an uneasy ally with security and political problems of its own.

“The logistics nightmare will be one of the reasons Afghanistan will turn out to be President Barack Obama's briar patch,” writes Melvin A. Goodman, who had a long career in the CIA, State Department, and US Army before becoming the national security and intelligence columnist for the liberal web site Truthout. “In many ways, the Obama blunder is even more tragic than Bush's because the Afghan challenge is far more daunting than the one in Iraq and there are important domestic programs that will be held hostage to Obama's war.”

As David Sanger of the New York Times notes, Obama’s Afghanistan surge differs from Bush’s surge in Iraq in another important way: There is no friendly and helpful local group willing to fight the enemy -- nothing analogous to the “Awakening” movement in Iraq, “the movement by local Sunni tribes who rose up against extremists.”

How is “Obama’s war” playing politically back home?

For one thing, it’s stirred antiwar Democrats in Congress to press for an early debate on funding the war.

“Let us have this debate before he moves forward,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts told Politico. “I remember the debates on Iraq. Bush already had the troops there, and then we were debating. ... I’d like it to be before we escalate one single American troop over there.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove (best known as Bush’s political mastermind) says “President Barack Obama’s speech [at West Point announcing the troop increase] deserves to be cheered” -- a thumb in the eye to Obama’s liberal base, who find themselves on the outside looking in while Republicans and more conservative Democrats cheer the war escalation.

More broadly, Obama gets a slight majority of public support for his handling of the war in Afghanistan. Or as Frank Newport of the Gallup Poll puts it, “President Obama has managed to thread the needle with his newly announced Afghanistan strategy, with his approach winning the approval of a majority of both Democrats (58 percent) and Republicans (55 percent) in a USA Today/Gallup poll.”

At the same time, Jeffrey Jones (also of the Gallup organization) warns that “the unveiling of President Obama's new military strategy for Afghanistan has not left Americans overly confident that it will succeed -- 48 percent say the U.S. is certain or likely to achieve its goals in the war, while 45 percent say the U.S. is unlikely to do so or is certain not to achieve its aims.”

What’s more, Jones writes in a poll analysis, “There are a significant number of doubters even among those who support the new war policy. Among this group, 61 percent believe the U.S. is likely to achieve its goals, but 35 percent are pessimistic.”

In other words, Obama has a fair amount of public support for “his” war in Afghanistan. But given palpable public war weariness after eight years there, that could quickly erode if things do not go well with the troop buildup.

See also:

Gates, other US officials clarify timeline for Afghanistan pullout


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