Is Obama In An 'Afghan Box'? During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama cited the war in Afghanistan as a "good war" — in contrast to the U.S. effort in Iraq. But as violence in Afghanistan escalates while support for the war deteriorates, can President Obama afford to stay the course? Can he afford not to?
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Is Obama In An 'Afghan Box'?

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Is Obama In An 'Afghan Box'?

Is Obama In An 'Afghan Box'?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama is in the midst of a difficult revision of his policies on Afghanistan. All this week, Mr. Obama is holding meetings on that issue. Senators are raising skeptical questions and that includes Senator John Kerry, whom we'll hear from in a few minutes.

BLOCK: Military leaders are asking the president for more troops. At the same time, the Afghan government's legitimacy is in question. And public support for the mission is falling. We've come a long way from the, quote, "good war" that Mr. Obama talked about during his presidential campaign, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: All through the campaign when then-Senator Barack Obama spoke of the war in Afghanistan, it was always in the context of that other war, the one in Iraq.

President BARACK OBAMA: (as presidential candidate) A war that has not made us more safe, but has distracted us from the task at hand in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: (as presidential candidate) A war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged.

GONYEA: That's from a rally in Pennsylvania. A year and a half ago, Mr. Obama was still battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, taking her to task for a vote authorizing the Iraq war. It was a very successful campaign tactic: Iraq was the bad war in contrast to Afghanistan, a war directly linked to the 9/11 attacks. He continued the approach in the fall campaign. This is from a presidential debate held one year ago this week. The moderator is PBS's Jim Lehrer.

Mr. JIM LEHRER (Host, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer"): Do you think more troop - more U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, how many, and when?

Pres. OBAMA: (as presidential candidate) Yes, I think we need more troops. I've been saying that for over a year now.

GONYEA: That position did something politically for a candidate with a relatively thin foreign policy resume, facing questions about what kind of commander-in-chief he would be. Christine Fair is an Afghanistan scholar at Georgetown University.

Ms. CHRISTINE FAIR (Afghanistan Scholar, Georgetown University): 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. Those resources should've been focused on Afghanistan where, Obama argued, our genuine national security interests lie with respect to the war on terror on al-Qaida.

GONYEA: 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. Then a month later, he delivered a major speech detailing a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the country it shares a mountainous border with. He called the region the most dangerous place in the world.

Pres. OBAMA: The situation is increasingly perilous. 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.

GONYEA: The headline from that March speech was that the president would send an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan. Part of the goal was to provide a secure environment for the Afghan elections in August. It all seemed a continuation of the policy laid out during the campaign: more resources, more troops. But also in that speech was a call for a complete review of the mission in Afghanistan — which is where we are today. And now, events of the past month have further complicated things. A leaked report by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General 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. The election did take place, but there are charges of widespread corruption, and there's still no declared winner. And suddenly, the White House direction on Afghanistan is far less clear. Here's Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): 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.

GONYEA: It is worth noting that two of Mr. Obama's presidential rivals from last year are now in the room as he considers his options: Hillary Clinton is secretary of state and there's 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 could affect the president's relationship with the military and prompt his critics to revive attacks that he's weak on national security. But polls also show the public growing weary of the Afghanistan war. This past Friday, Mr. Obama said he expects tough questions.

Pres. OBAMA: We're not going to arrive at perfect answers. 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.

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

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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