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Obama’s Peril in Afghanistan?

When Barack Obama took office in January, he swiftly moved to make his policy mark on the handling of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as the US’s anti-terrorism campaign more generally. Declaring a full change in direction, he issued executive orders restricting interrogation techniques, closed Guantanamo Bay and other secrets prisons, and so forth. In another high profile move, the administration launched their revised Afghanistan policy in major Presidential address in March, which included a number of concrete steps for the war to be taken forward.

Afghanistan was by many measures the strongest pillar of the foreign policy plank of the Obama campaign in terms of solid commitments that differed from both the Bush administration and the McCain campaign. While the Obama team harshly criticized the Bush approach in Iraq, with U.S. allies, in the Americas and the entire “War on Terror” concept, Afghanistan is where Obama hung his hat when it came to contrast with McCain’s proposed approach. McCain argued that Iraq, where the US’s “surge” policy had brought some measure of stability, was the key, and that gains there could be lost by redirecting or spreading US military and diplomatic forces. Obama, however, put in very blunt terms that the US needed to “refocus” on Afghanistan, with a major infusion of new troops, political will, and diplomatic pressure on NATO, Pakistan and domestic Afghan partners.

It is certainly quite a political gamble, putting your foreign policy credibility on the line for a war that could be lost a hundred times before it is won. Even if a strategic improvement were to be secured, it is clear that American public is quite fatigued with the overseas excursions altogether, “successful” or not. In terms of strategy for the Obama administration then, the Afghanistan conflict must be handled quite carefully on the political end, even though signs are generally positive after the change in strategy.

Looking at US public opinion (as measured by CNN’s polling on the subject), since 2006, the Afghanistan war has been split in terms of popularity. Zooming in on the past nine months, we can see the beginning of an Obama arc.

Beginning in December 2008, the Afghan war, along with all other things linked with Barack Obama, was flying high. Rebounding from poor scores in July, when the foreign policy contest between campaigns was at its height, favorability for the war swung from -6 to +6 in just five months. By the end of Obama’s first month in office, however, popular support had ebbed away, following the expected, but lukewarmly popular decision to deploy 17,000 additional U.S. troops to the country. March’s policy address provided another bounce, particularly to Democrats in general, and liberals in specific, who had found Obama’s previous actions to be more focused on “escalation” than was expected.

Since that speech in March, however, public opinion has slowly eroded, particularly among the left, as the conflict has moved to the background, and begun to again look like an eternal operation. While dangerous in terms of optics, the strategy behind might be sounder than it seems at first glance.

Unlike the Bush Administration, Obama has been content to leave Afghanistan on the back burner of public relations. The former was intent on providing updates, benchmarks, photo ops and so forth at a quite regular, about monthly, rate. Meant to show that progress was being made, the habitual notifications instead began to muddy the waters with the US public. Particularly as the Iraq operation took a turn for the worse, it was not clear which updates meant progress and which meant backsliding. As well, when big breaks occurred, it was quite difficult to tease them away from the normal, regular events. As such, Bush began to look disingenuous about the war and the public became more skeptical.

If Obama can stomach the relatively low popularity of the war, driven mostly by disenchanted lefties and skeptical moderates (about 66% of Republicans still approve of the war), and hold back from trying to show success before there is any, he can perhaps take the high ground by the time 2012 comes around. For example, rather than over blowing the impact of this week’s Presidential election — for example, hailing it as proof of “democracy,” “freedom,” “success,” etc. — the administration should continue to managed expectations with words like “slow but steady progress,” and “step in the right direction.”

Obama’s peril in Afghanistan is that the political calculations that brought him to emphasize Afghanistan in 2008 mean that the ownership for its success or failure are transferred from the Bush legacy (and previous) to the Obama administration more quickly than perhaps Iraq, Israel/Palestine or illegal immigration. Like health care and the anti-recession stimulus efforts, ownership and effort also mean responsibility.

One option on Friday morning for the Obama folks is for in-country actors or subordinates to take the lead on responding to the Afghan election, rather than the President himself. Other than a relatively generic praise of democracy and gentle prods for its imperfections, leaving the response to the “experts” could be a way to insulate him a bit. On the other, this adminstration has generally put the President himself to major use as chief cheerleader for all policies, bar none, and perhaps Afghanistan this time will be no different. Indeed, the administration response, in terms of personnel, likely more than content, will be indicative of their political strategy moving forward.

Update: The Washington Post goes into detail about the sacking of former Afghanistan theater commander David McKiernan as part of the Obama administration’s new strategy, which requires a commander who is “able to nimbly run the troops on the ground as well as the traps in Washington.”

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at