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Posted by on Aug 24, 2009 in Guest Contributor, International, Politics, War | 6 comments

Avoiding Defeat in Afghanistan

Guest post by Peter S. Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University.

Last Friday, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge revealed the obvious — that the George W. Bush Administration had pressured him to raise the terror alert level in advance of the 2004 elections. This is significant for many reasons, but what struck me was its relation to one of the most significant issues the Obama Administration faces: the possibility that the American people may tire of our crucial efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Bush maintained support for his “war on terror” by manipulating public fears, something Obama, thankfully, seems unwilling to do. But in the absence of an apparently imminent threat, will the American public continue to support sending forces to Afghanistan, or will they punish Obama for his attempts to take ownership of this conflict?

Two recent sets of news stories inspire the question. The first is the admission of Mr. Ridge. As Howard Kurtz noted, this is not shocking and is hardly a moral victory for Ridge, who acquiesced in the face of the Bush Administration’s political duplicity and incompetence until it became (literally) profitable to speak up. It broke, however, around the same time as a Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated declining support for the war, and an op-ed by Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass provided intellectual heft to public skepticism about the war. The question becomes, then, assuming the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, how do Obama and his progressive supporters regain the public’s attention without resorting to Bush-style threat inflation?

First, the assumption of the war’s significance must be defended. Unlike Iraq, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was based on a direct threat to the homeland. The war in Afghanistan was neglected under Bush, but Obama has changed this situation, assigning political and military leadership that takes counterinsurgency seriously. The new U.S. approach involves attempts to minimize civilian casualties and improve infrastructure, in addition to targeting Taliban and al-Qaida (AQ) militants. Serious problems remain, and U.S. casualties have tragically increased in recent months. Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, though — as Haass suggests — would lead to a renewed threat from AQ, and possibly destabilize Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Moreover, our commitment to Afghanistan is an opportunity to demonstrate the viability of Obama’s broader progressive approach to national security, which — as I have argued before — weds concerns for human rights with the dictates of military necessity.

Why is the American public now tiring of the war? Because, in short, Afghanistan no longer scares us. After 9/11, additional attacks seemed inevitable, leading to strong support for Bush. As the link between AQ and Iraq became tenuous, Bush skillfully manipulated the public’s fears to preclude tough questions about his policies. Now, however, the public is distracted from terrorism by more imminent domestic fears of “death panels” and layoffs, and the welfare of the Afghan people seems a distant concern.

What, then, should we do? Withdrawal is not an option. In addition to the reasons outlined above, a failure on the part of the Obama Administration will be painted as a sign of weakness by Republicans and return America to tragic GOP dominance over security issues. Progressives must instead remember a crucial element of American identity, and its implications for foreign policy. Americans want to believe that their interests and their ideals are aligned, and that the policies of their leaders are an expression of both, a connection Bush so skillfully made in his second inaugural speech. The policies Obama is advancing in Afghanistan — unlike many efforts by Bush and other Republicans — satisfy both conditions.

Increased support for Obama’s policies will only occur through a concerted effort on the part of their proponents. First, Obama should devote more time to justifying the war — instead of fixating on the domestic issues that have been the focus of most of his speeches — as he runs the risk of losing initiative on national security concerns. Second, Democrats must unite behind the president’s policies. At this point, Republicans are more supportive of the war than are Democrats, a situation that must change. Democrats should separate lingering resentment of the Bush-era foreign policies from Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan; we must recognize the beneficial nature of the president’s approach to Afghanistan and realize it is an extension of progressive ideals. Only then can a concerted effort be undertaken to shift public opinion and reveal the positive contributions Obama’s policies have made to U.S. national security.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • Leonidas

    Obama is between a rock and a hard place on Afganistan. I do not envy his position and do not blame him for being in it, anyone who took over the office would have a difficult time on this issue. The only blame that he deserves is not devoting enough time to it thus far, not a critical glaring error at the moment, but one that will appear if he doesn’t rectify the situation before too long. Not having appointed an Army Secretary yet, doesn’t help this any.

    Obama actually has it tougher than John McCain would have (and not just due to having less Foreign Policy experience), since Obama is up against the progressives to a significant extent on this issue. He can probably count on blue dog and conservative support (although he needs to make sure he keeps an eye on wastes in spending which will be a valid criticism) but the liberal wing of his own Party is becoming more and more problematic for his agenda despite all the catering he has done to their interests with the Stimulas, the Omnibus Appropriations bill, and the climate change legislation all greatly increasing the deficit during a time of economic hardship which many moderates in his own party cringed at and even voted against.

  • shannonlee

    I think most Americans are going through war fatigue. First it was Afghanistan, and a very large percentage of Americas were behind it. Then we went into Iraq and have been reminded every day about the horrors of that war. Now that we are about to get out of Iraq, we go right back into Afghanistan…into a war that most Americans don’t understand how we win…or what winning really means. We hear about the war…hear the bickering between politicians over the war…hear about how much it costs…how many die…ect…It just feels like one long horrible war.

    It is no wonder that support is starting to dwindle, especially on the left.

    There is a certain portion of the left that Obama will never get…they simply do not support war in almost any form…your code pinker types. Then you have others that see the war effort as a detriment to other policies…say health care. You also have others that simply do not want anything that W started, to turn out well.

    Obama is going to have to rely on his liberal allies and Republicans. I don’t think he is going to win a lot of support from his typical base on this.

  • Leonidas

    we go right back into Afghanistan

    no we don’t we never left it.

  • shannonlee

    As a country, it left our conscious. Yes, we were there, but people weren’t talking about it.

    Also, stuff like this doesn’t help:

    “I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I’ve said that over the past couple of years — that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    It is the truth and needs to be said, but it surely doesn’t help opinion polls.

  • Leonidas

    ” As a country, it left our conscious. Yes, we were there, but people weren’t talking about it.”

    Maybe so but not everyone got distracted. I live in a small town and we have soldiers there, we did not allow it to leave our consciousness. When we saw the mothers, wives and children of our veterans serving over there we were constantly reminded. Maybe in large urban areas where people hardly know each other the issue was forgotten, but at least in the small corner of the nation it was not.

  • shannonlee

    “Maybe in large urban areas where people hardly know each other the issue was forgotten, but at least in the small corner of the nation it was not.”

    Is that a direct quote from Sarah Palin? 😉 Kinda of a culture war remark if you ask me.

    Anyway…you would be surprised to know that even urban people like myself, have family serving in Afghanistan. I even have German friends over there.

    So not all of us forgot. And even some of us fully support our efforts over there.

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