Obama and the politics of Afghanistan

Nov 19 2009 - 10:48am

Political factors, as much as military ones, appear to be shaping President Barack Obama's long-pending decision on the next phase of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

And while that is understandable, it risks extending the U.S. commitment longer than Obama and many Americans want.

Repeated White House requests for additional information and the stress on ensuring a clear exit strategy suggest Obama's lengthy review has deepened his doubts about expanding the U.S. military effort.

Otherwise, he presumably could have decided weeks ago to accept Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan to add 40,000 more American troops to the 68,000 already in Afghanistan.

As recently as Aug. 17, the president reiterated his campaign position that Afghanistan was "a war of necessity" and "a war worth fighting."

Clearly, some things have changed. They include increasing doubts that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a reliable partner, evidence that al-Qaeda has moved much of its presence to neighboring Pakistan and arguments from retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador in Kabul, that pervasive corruption there raises doubts about the value of additional American troops.

If Obama altered his position on the importance of the Afghanistan effort, he hardly would be the first president who switched course in an important foreign policy area because of realities or changed circumstances not evident on the campaign trail.

President George H.W. Bush called in his 1988 campaign for a more skeptical approach toward changes in the Soviet Union, then rushed to embrace President Mikhail Gorbachev when it became evident the Communist monolith was imploding.

President Bill Clinton downplayed campaign concerns about China's human rights abuses after he entered the White House. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush eagerly undertook in both Afghanistan and Iraq the kind of nation building he condemned during the 2000 campaign.

In television interviews Wednesday in Beijing, Obama made clear he is not considering reducing the number of troops now. To do so would cause him no end of political trouble, the last thing he needs as he struggles to pass his health care plan and cope with the country's continuing economic woes.

It might please many Democrats, who want out of Afghanistan. But it would encounter strong GOP opposition, though even some conservatives say we should leave if not prepared to "win," whatever that means. And it might draw criticism from moderate and conservative Democrats like Ike Skelton, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon and even possibly some members of the Obama administration.

That could be an untenable position for a 48-year-old, first-year president with scant background in military affairs.

But the long-term situation in Afghanistan may be even less promising than Iraq was when George W. Bush made his much criticized but ultimately successful decision to extend the U.S. military effort in the so-called surge.

Brookings expert Michael O'Hanlon, an early advocate of the "surge" in Iraq, wrote in The Washington Post that he's beginning to detect progress in Afghanistan's effort to build its police forces, but his optimism is definitely a minority view.

And what Obama has learned from Eikenberry and other, more cautious advisers may have bolstered his existing doubts about the value of a long, costly U.S. effort.

Comments last weekend by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that most al-Qaeda elements have moved into neighboring Pakistan suggest another rationale for stopping short of McChrystal's full recommendation. So does the president's statement Friday that "the United States cannot be engaged in an open-ended commitment."

Still, Obama seems headed toward ordering some expansion of U.S. forces. And though he told NBC's Chuck Todd on Wednesday that "this decision will put us on a path towards ending the war," the more troops he sends, the harder it may be to pull them out.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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