Is Obama In An 'Afghan Box'?

President Obama is in the midst of a difficult revision of his polices in Afghanistan. All this week, he is holding meetings on the future of the U.S. mission there.

There are a number of elements that the president must consider: The military is expected to ask for more troops; the credibility of the Afghanistan government is in question; and public support for the mission is falling.

It wasn't always this complicated.

And it's a long way from the rhetoric Obama used during the presidential campaign. Back then, Obama would mention the war in Afghanistan as "the good war," with a direct link to the Sept. 11 attacks. In contrast, the Iraq war was "a war that has not made us more safe, but has distracted us from the task at hand in Afghanistan" — as Obama told a rally in Pennsylvania in April 2008.

At the time, Obama was still battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and taking her to task for a vote authorizing the Iraq war proved to be a successful campaign tactic.

Obama continued the approach beyond the primary season. When Jim Lehrer moderated a presidential debate last fall, he asked the candidates whether more troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and if so, how many, and when. "Yes, I think we need more troops." Obama responded. "I've been saying that for over a year now."

That position did give a boost to a candidate with a relatively thin foreign policy resume, who was facing questions about what kind of commander in chief he would be.

"That was an expedient to basically say to the Americans, 'Look, I'm not a war-phobic president; I'm not insensitive to our security needs,' " says Christine Fair, an Afghanistan scholar at Georgetown University.

Conflicting Demands

When Obama first moved into the White House, the rhetoric didn't change much.

In February, he announced that all U.S. combat troops would be withdrawn from Iraq within two years. A month later, he delivered a major speech detailing a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He called the region the most dangerous place in the world.

"The situation is increasingly perilous," the president said in March. "It's been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on, and insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The headline from that speech was that Obama would send an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Part of the goal was to provide a secure environment for Afghan elections in August.

It seemed to be a continuation of the policy laid out during the campaign: more resources, more troops. But that speech also contained a call for a complete review of the mission in Afghanistan — which is where we are today. The events of the past month have further complicated things.

A leaked report by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, says many more troops are needed, or the U.S. risks failure. At the same time, American casualties in Afghanistan in July and August were the highest since the war began. A national election did take place in Afghanistan, but there are charges of widespread corruption, and still no declared winner.

Suddenly, the White House direction on Afghanistan is far less clear.

"This isn't going to be finished in one meeting. It's not going to be finished in several meetings. But this is the beginning of a process for making some eventual determinations," says Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, about the president's current assessment.

Time To Refocus?

It is worth noting that two of Obama's presidential rivals from last year are now in the room as he considers his options: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, who has long favored focusing the U.S. mission in Afghanistan more narrowly on counterterrorism, with fewer U.S. troops.

That approach contains risks. Rejecting a request from the Pentagon for more troops could affect the president's relationship with the military and prompt his critics to revive attacks that he is weak on national security. But polls also show the public growing weary of the war in Afghanistan.

This past Friday, Obama said he expects tough questions — "and we're not going to arrive at perfect answers," he warned. "I think anybody who's looked at the situation recognizes that it's difficult and it's complicated. But my solemn obligation is to make sure that I get the best answers possible, particularly before I make decisions about sending additional troops into the theater."

The administration resists any notion that what Obama said during the campaign puts him in a box. The White House says that the only goal is to find a strategy that works.

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