In the wake of the leak of General Stanley McChrystal's report on the situation in Afghanistan, in which McChrystal warns that more troops are needed in Afghanistan and if they are not provided the situation "will likely result in failure," President Obama is faced with perhaps the most difficult and important foreign policy decision of his administration. And it seems as if, so far, Obama has no idea what to do.
Back in February, the new president referred to Afghanistan as, along with Pakistan, "the central front in the war on terror" and that he would try to replicate the US "surge" strategy in Iraq that stabilized that country. In March, Obama warned that if “if the Afghanistan government falls to the Taliban or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged that country will again be a base for terrorists.” In April, Secretary of State Clinton told Congress that "the core goal of President Barack Obama’s anti-terror strategy is to defeat al-Qaida and prevent its return to Afghanistan." And just last month, Obama declared that that the war in Afghanistan "is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again."
So what are we to make of Obama's comment last week that there will be "no quick decision" on whether to increase the US troop presence in Afghanistan? If the war in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity," if it is "the central front in the war on terror," what is there to think about when the commanding general reports that more troops are needed to stave off defeat?
Unless Obama has changed his mind about the nature and import of the war, the answer is likely that domestic politics has interfered with his strategic calculations. Perhaps the need to hold together the Democratic party on the issue of health care has caused Obama to back away from Afghanistan as more and more Democrats become disillusioned with the worsening situation there.
But this is a very dangerous strategy. Obama's wavering is undoubtedly contributing to growing public uncertainty about the campaign. Late last month, a majority of Americans questioned the necessity of the war, while just over 25% indicated that they would support a decision to increase troop levels. A poll earlier this month revealed that 41% of Americans want troop levels reduced. As work by Peter Feaver, Chris Gelpi, and Jason Reifler (full disclosure: Feaver and Gelpi were on my dissertation committee, while Reifler was in graduate school with me) demonstrates, American support (or lack thereof) for US military operations depends on "the retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the first place, and the prospective attitude of whether the war will be won." So, when Obama backs away from his certainty that Afghanistan is a war of necessity that must be fought to protect national and international security and when he wavers on whether to send troops, public opinion wavers right along with him.
This is not to argue that Obama MUST send more troops to Afghanistan. There are many good arguments that Afghanistan is, in fact, no longer a war worth fighting. But, his indecision is perhaps the most dangerous of any action (or inaction). The longer a decision on increasing troops is delayed and the less certain Obama and his administration seem about whether the war can be won, the more quickly public opinion will erode. Wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, given their complicated nature and protracted lengths, depend heavily on solid public support. When that erodes, particularly for a president with as grand a domestic agenda as Obama, success becomes less and less likely.
President Obama needs to make his decision and he needs to make it soon. If he does, in fact, believe that Afghanistan is a war of necessity -- a war that American national interest demands be fought -- then he has no choice but to fight it with all the necessary resources. Of course, there are still debates over strategy to be argued. But when the top commander is warning of defeat unless more troops are sent, strategy debates need to settled quickly. If Afghanistan is no longer a war of necessity -- if the US really doesn't care whether the Taliban regains control of the country, so long as al Qaeda is unable to use the country as a base as it once did -- then Obama needs to make that decision clear as quickly as possible. But the current situation of indecision and uncertainty is untenable and dangerous. It's time for a decision on Afghanistan.