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Obama’s Domestic Afghanistan Puzzle

The national security, regional stability and humanitarian elements of the Obama Administration’s Afghanistan policy are a difficult mess of intertwined problems to disentangle. Reading the lengthy profile of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s “special representative” for Afghanistan, in last week’s New Yorker, only makes one depressed. “The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize,” predicted Holbrooke in March, 2008. “This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history.”

Tomorrow, in fact, Afghanistan enters its ninth year, and now stands just four months shy of the American Revolution, six shy of Vietnam. With no end in sight, Afghanistan is also the riskiest and most dangerous foreign policy issue–and thus one of the riskiest electoral gambits–of Obama’s presidency. Yesterday, Obama met with relevant congressional leaders from both parties to discuss American policy in Afghanistan. Legislators on both sides of the aisle expressed reservations; Obama’s vanquished 2008 presidential opponent John McCain was apparently a particularly vocal critic. The president is having top-level staff meetings later this week to discuss both Pakistan and Afghanistan, specifically Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation of an additional 40,000 troops.

Putting aside the policy challenges and uncertainties, how thorny is the political thicket for Obama?

Pretty thorny. There are divisions between the parties, divisions within his own party, and divisions among the American public more broadly. A new Quinnipiac poll shows how divided and discouraged Americans are. Though a 52 percent majority think “the war…is the right thing to do,” 37 percent do not and by only a 49-38 percent margin do they think the war there will successfully remove the terrorist threat to the United States. (I cannot help but pause here to note that critics of Obama’s health care reform who say the public option is unpopular with Americans ought to be reminded that public support for the public option is higher than that for the war in Afghanistan.)

As for pols, McCain, who expressed support for the administration’s policy back in March, reportedly warned Obama against moving at a “leisurely pace” s outburst yesterday. On her Facebook page, McCain’s 2008 running mate says Obama should stand firm. “Our allies and our adversaries are watching to see if we have the staying power to protect our interests in Afghanistan,” wrote Sarah Palin. “I recently joined a group of Americans in urging President Obama to devote the resources necessary in Afghanistan and pledged to support him if he made the right decision. Now is not the time for cold feet, second thoughts, or indecision — it is the time to act as commander-in-chief and approve the troops so clearly needed in Afghanistan.”

There are two fundamental domestic political truths about Afghanistan for Obama. The first is that this is a war without much of a political upside because it is difficult to ever prove that we have “won” it, for even temporary victories can be reversed. There will be no armistice, convention, or capitulation, and the asymmetries of the fight mean that the “enemy,” such as it is, can always regroup or displace. We can only measure victory by the vague metric of days during which no major terrorist attack hits America or its allies, or by the withdrawal or reduction in resources invested there. The second is that, although Obama inherited the war, he owns that inheritance by virtue of his statements during the 2008 campaign. He can complain about the war’s intractable nature, but he cannot complain about its burden or point as directly to the persistence of the problem as a result of his predecessor’s (in)actions.

Having said that, and given the grumblings by McCain and Palin, I wonder if we are about to witness the (partisan) politicization of Afghanistan in the way we saw the “Waterloo”-style opposition to Obama’s health care plan. During the Bush era, Republicans used the politics of warmaking to cudgel Democrats, and warned that criticisms of the president or his policy amounted to near-treasonous politicization of, and thus the undermining of, America’s national security interests. There are no real good solutions in Afghanistan, but whatever semi-promising options are available to us need not be clouded by a new round of shameless politicking designed to batter the president at the expense of non-failure–I hesitate to use the word success–in Afghanistan.