For Obama, Politics Of Afghan War Less Vexing Than Strategy

Motorcycle-riding Afghan villagers ride past U.S. Marines on patrol in Helmand province, Dec. 17, 2010. i i

Motorcycle-riding Afghan villagers ride past U.S. Marines on patrol in Helmand province, Dec. 17, 2010. MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Motorcycle-riding Afghan villagers ride past U.S. Marines on patrol in Helmand province, Dec. 17, 2010.

Motorcycle-riding Afghan villagers ride past U.S. Marines on patrol in Helmand province, Dec. 17, 2010.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

It's easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan. That nation has a history of breaking hearts, those of foreigners who've invaded and occupied it over the centuries, and of its own people.

Many Americans know this. It helps to explain why about 6 out of 10 Americans don't believe the Afghanistan War has been worth fighting, according to an ABC News poll released this week. Other polls show similar unpopularity.

For many Americans, Afghanistan has become the bad war in which the objectives of vanquishing the Taliban and keeping that nation from once again becoming a staging area for terrorists seem to be receding beyond reach.

This runs counter, of course, to how President Obama has framed U.S. efforts there from the 2008 campaign forward. Iraq was supposed to be the bad war, not Afghanistan.

The president's strategic review released Thursday did little to quell the concerns of skeptics and probably won't do much to change Americans' negative opinions about Afghanistan.

For Obama, Afghanistan is obviously not just a strategic national security problem but a political one as well.

It's rarely good for a president politically to wage an unpopular war. To run for re-election during such a war is even more politically challenging.

If Obama was to be challenged politically on Afghanistan, it would likely be from the left of his party, much the way President Lyndon Johnson was challenged from the left by Robert Kennedy during the Vietnam War.

But if such a political challenge from a fellow Democrat lies ahead for Obama because of the war, it's not yet apparent. There are several reasons why Afghanistan is not Obama's Vietnam, at least not yet.

The perilous state of the economy for many Americans has likely kept many Americans from focusing on Afghanistan.

The president also inherited the difficult conflict that began as a war of necessity after Sept. 11. So Obama doesn't get the blame his predecessor received for launching an unpopular war of choice.

Meanwhile, only a small percentage of Americans serve in the U.S. military. So for many the war is more abstract than, say, was true of Vietnam.

Obama has even less to worry about from the political right since his Afghanistan policies have been more strongly supported by Republicans than Democrats.

But while Afghanistan doesn't pose a domestic political problem yet for the president, it remains a huge strategic riddle.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations, told All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel, that the review didn't start by asking fundamental questions that might have led to different conclusions:

There are two other broader sets of questions that have to precede any serious review of a foreign policy question. One is, sure, we face threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but are those threats as serious today as they were 10 years ago? Or have those threats morphed? Are they now all over the place and Afghanistan and Pakistan are no longer vital interests to the United States? That's the first question.

And the second question is to look at ourselves. We have to ask, are these hundreds of billions of dollars we will spend on AfPak, as it's called, Afghanistan and Pakistan, over the next years worth it, given the terrible deteriorating economic situation in the United States? Can we afford to spend billions building roads and fixing schools in Afghanistan when the roads and schools are falling apart in America?

A member of the New York Times editorial board wrote the following:

It is even harder to judge the administration’s claims about “disrupting and dismantling” Al Qaeda.

These things may be difficult to measure, but there is no excuse for the review’s failure to explain how the administration plans to deal with two of its biggest problems: Pakistan’s continued refusal to go after Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuaries, and the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government.

One of the most interesting Afghanistan analysts is Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who fought there and is now a fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Exum recently returned from Afghanistan where he observed that U.S. counterinsurgency efforts seem to be going much better than during his earlier visits.

But Exum notes that whether the U.S. is ultimately able to leave Afghanistan as a relatively stable country that can provide for its own security lies largely in Afghan hands. Gelb made the same point in his conversation with Robert.

It's anyone's guess as to whether the Afghans will be able to do it. Optimism isn't high that Afghans can do it in the time left before the U.S. and other NATO countries start withdrawing their forces.

From an Exum blog post:

We have two "Achilles heels" in the current strategy: Afghan governance and insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. What these two weaknesses have in common is their combined effect on the ability of insurgent ranks, which have been decimated this year, to regenerate either through sanctuaries (to include external support) or by exploiting grievances caused by bad governance. I'm going to be honest and say that I do not see a coherent or otherwise effective strategy for dealing with the sanctuaries in Pakistan. I do not see it anywhere in the U.S. government or within NATO, whose writ only extends to the borders of Afghanistan anyway. With respect to governance, I have seen some isolated rays of hope at the local level, but it is easy to see how, as long as Afghans consider their country the third most corrupt country on Earth and look elsewhere for the rule of law, insurgents will continue to recruit and recover their losses.

In another post, he makes something of a radical proposal. Western nations should turn the knob on the spigot of cash going into Afghanistan. All the money is just feeding corruption:

This may seem a bit counterintuitive, to say the least. But right now, the massive amount of money flowing into Kabul is fueling the conflict. In a bizarre way, both the Taliban and the Afghan government currently have an interest in perpetuating this conflict: Both parties are making millions of dollars from the aid and development money saturating the country. These funds are distorting incentives and presenting ample opportunities for kickbacks, bribes, and other forms of corruption. It is little wonder Transparency International rates Afghanistan the world's third most corrupt nation.

It's a fascinating proposal which just so happens to dovetail neatly with the needs of cash-strapped Western nations to redirect the money they're spending in Afghanistan to their own domestic needs.

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