WASHINGTON - Growing skepticism among key Democratic lawmakers about the United
States commitment to the war in Afghanistan is certain to pose one of the most
difficult political challenges faced by President Barack Obama in his first
year in office.
With the military apparently preparing to press for a significant increase in
the number of US troops deployed to combat an increasingly effective Taliban
insurgency, Obama, who recently called the conflict a "war of necessity", will
soon be forced to decide whether to grant the request at the risk of alienating
many in his own party.
Enthusiastic Republican backing for the military's anticipated
recommendations will likely not make his decision any easier. Neo-conservatives
and other hawks have been arguing for weeks that anything less than "victory"
in Afghanistan may well have catastrophic consequences for US national security
not only in Afghanistan, but Pakistan and beyond.
"We are confident that not only is [the war] winnable, but that we have no
choice," wrote Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and the hawkish
independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal on Monday.
"We must prevail in Afghanistan," they went on, insisting that preventing a
Taliban takeover "remains a clear, vital national interest of the United
States". Their column was entitled "Only Decisive Force Can Prevail in
The increasingly polarized debate was on display Tuesday during the
reconfirmation hearings of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral
Mike Mullen, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Washington will
likely have to send more troops to Afghanistan if its new counter-insurgency
strategy led by US Army General Stanley McChrystal was to have any hope for
"A properly resourced counter-insurgency probably means more forces, and,
without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan
people and to the development of good governance," he said, although he
declined to cite the number of additional troops he intends to request.
McCain quickly agreed. "We will need more US combat forces in Afghanistan, not
less or the same amount we have today," he asserted, arguing that, much like
the so-called "surge" in Iraq, more US troops were needed to hold off the
insurgents until the indigenous forces could carry the burden.
But Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, insisted that Washington and
its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies should first accelerate
the training and equipping of Afghan forces before additional US troops should
be sent to the theater.
Such an effort, said Levin, who returned from a visit to Afghanistan just last
week, "would demonstrate our commitment to the success of the mission that is
in our national security interest, while avoiding the risks associated with a
larger US footprint".
"[T]hese steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further
increase in US ground combat troops, beyond what is already planned to be
deployed by the end of the year," he said.
Shortly after taking office, Obama, who had argued during his presidential
campaign that the administration of his predecessor, George W Bush, had made a
major strategic mistake by diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq after
the Taliban's ouster in late 2001, authorized the deployment of 17,500 more US
combat troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan.
That deployment is expected to be completed by the end of this month, bringing
the total number of US troops in Afghanistan to some 68,000. Some 39,000 NATO
forces are also deployed there.
This year's increase in troop strength, however, has not yet translated into a
more secure environment; indeed, attacks against US and NATO forces - and
against Afghan civilian targets - have steadily increased since the spring.
Well over 300 US and NATO troops have been killed so far in 2009, the highest
toll for any year in a war that is now eight years old.
In addition to the mounting casualties and war fatigue, the increasingly
notorious corruption of the government of President Hamid Karzai and the
widespread fraud apparently committed to secure his re-election have
contributed to a distinct shift in public opinion over the past couple of
months, a trend that appears to have accelerated in recent weeks.
A CNN poll taken late last month found that 57% of the public now opposes the
war, up from 46% in April. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll
released on Tuesday, only one-in-four respondents - and less than one-in-five
self-identified Democrats - favor Mullen's appeal to send more troops to
Moreover, for the first time the percentage of those respondents who said they
believed that winning in Afghanistan was essential for success in the "war on
terrorism" fell to below 50%.
Leading Democratic lawmakers, who until now have tried to avoid any criticism
of the war Obama has made a top priority, appear to be following the public's
lead, especially in the last week.
"I don't think there's a great deal of support sending more troops to
Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress," noted the powerful speaker of
the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, last Thursday, a statement whose
truth was underlined by a confidential National Journal survey of Democratic
lawmakers that found that only 13% supported increasing the number of troops.
"I think at this point sending additional troops would not be the right thing
to do," said Senator Dick Durbin, a staunch and long-time supporter of the
president, over the weekend. "[L]et the Afghans bring stability to their own
country. Let's work with them to make that happen."
A major emerging theme among the war's critics, particularly Democrats, is that
Obama could meet a similar fate in Afghanistan as former president Lyndon
Johnson in Vietnam. Like Johnson 40 years ago, Obama has an ambitious domestic
reform agenda that risks, in the view of some observers, being undone by an
increasingly unpopular and costly war.
In an interview with the New York Times and CNBC Monday, Obama rejected the
parallel but confessed he was concerned about "the dangers of overreach and not
having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people".
McChrystal, who is reportedly putting the final touches on his recommendations
to Obama, is expected to echo the Democrats' calls for accelerating the buildup
of the Afghan army and policy, in part by sending more US trainers, and to
request more combat troops, as well.
While commanders in the field have suggested as many as 45,000 more troops in
order to contain and begin reclaiming territory from the Taliban, most
observers believe McChrystal and the military brass, in recognition of the
growing public skepticism, will request at most half that number.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.