During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama insisted on a crucial distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan, he said, is a war of necessity, while Iraq is a war of choice. In doing so, Obama, who had wrestled the anti-war Democrats away from his candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, was being consistent with his positions following 9/11. He opposed the war in Iraq, but supported the decision to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since taking office, his administration has acted on both two fronts. On Iraq, it has adopted a policy which will essentially remove American troops from a combat role over the next two years, gaining the support of Republicans in the process. In the case of Afghanistan, Obama opted to move 16,000 troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan to combat al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors. That too obtained bipartisan support. Since then, conditions on the ground in Afghanistan have deteriorated significantly, to the point the administration is now divided on whether to send a major new influx of troops (in the vicinity of 40,000) to pursue the effort to keep the Taliban from recapturing power.
Further complicating matters is the campaign waged by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Major General Stanley McChrystal, in favour of more troops and the fact that he has gone public with his demands. Obama’s inner circle is unhappy with McChrystal and his vocal promotion of sending more troops, leading Defence Secretary Bob Gates and National Security Advisor James Jones to publicly argue the president should have been presented with options, not a fait accompli, and that this should have been done in private. Since Vice-President Joe Biden is believed opposed to a build-up of troops, one can only imagine his displeasure with the commander. Obama, meanwhile, has indicated he will reflect on the matter and choose from a series of options over the next few weeks. As well he should—or he could be on the slippery slope to a new Vietnam. Make no mistake about it, this upcoming decision will go a long way to determining the success of Obama’s foreign policy, just as success or failure in achieving healthcare reforms will define his domestic standing.
McChrystal’s campaign is reminiscent of the showdown between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry S. Truman, which eventually led to the General’s dismissal. Some on the left are accusing General David Petraeus, leader of the Iraq surge and now McChrystal’s superior, of colluding with the US commander on the ground in Afghanistan to test Obama and force him to choose their option. They say Obama should fire the “insubordinate” McChrystal. However, given Obama’s style of government, it is more likely that he will let his decision dictate McChystal’s fate rather than a pique of ego or hierarchy. After all, McChrystal was Obama’s pick and Obama made it clear the strategy he announced last spring would be subject to evaluation and possible revision.
Opinion polls have shown a marked decline in support for the war and Democrats have started to split split along ideological lines. For their part, Republicans led by John McCain have endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations just as they did the surge in Iraq under General Petraeus. Petraeus’s public support of McChrystal’s approach adds another layer of complexity to the matter. Obama’s decision could very well split his party, meaning he may have to rely on the Republicans, the very party dedicated to fight health care reform at any cost, for support. Obama has become a prisoner of his rhetoric about Afghanistan as a war of necessity and the focus he has placed on defeating al Qaeda. And now, with neighbouring Pakistan anything but stable or safe, leaving or downscaling the commitment to the region is not an option.
It is important to note how much circumstances in the region have changed since Obama’s election. The Karzai government has lost much of its credibility after its controversial re-election and this has done little to make the war any more popular in America. In addition, the Taliban seems emboldened and Afghan troops have not been up to the challenge of playing a bigger combat role even as NATO countries have become increasingly reluctant to engage further. Throughout all this, al Qaeda has remained very active and there is a very real possibility a Taliban government could re-emerge in Kabul and bring the country back to its pre-9/11 state.
The Bush Administration has been blamed for leaving Obama in a bind by failing to focus enough resources on hunting down Bin Laden and choosing to go to war in Iraq instead. But Bush is no longer in office and casualties in Afghanistan are still mounting weekly. The president’s major responsibility is to keep his country safe against the threat of terrorism. In light of this, it is commendable that Obama will take the time to consider the ramifications of McChrystal’s recommendations. At the end of the day, I am certain he will not scale back U.S. involvement in Afghanistan because doing so may leave everyone worse off. But no matter what Obama decides, it’s now his war.