Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama harped on the failure of the Bush administration to rout al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Iraq, he claimed, was the wrong war -- the bad war -- while Afghanistan was the good war, one that was in our national interest. I believed at the time that his intent in focusing on Afghanistan was more political than strategic. He wanted to avoid being labeled simply anti-war and weak on defense, as Americans have come to regard many Democrats over the years. But candidate Obama also needed the support of anti-war elements within his own party to win the nomination, which meant he had to promise that any commitment to Afghanistan would be short-lived.
The political bargain he struck, once elected, was to send more troops to Afghanistan but to announce their planned withdrawal at the same time. Now, this pullout schedule -- set to begin in July 2011 -- is looming and the president must walk an even thinner political tightrope. Support for the war has declined because the president has failed to make the case to the American people for why we are in Afghanistan on a sustained and regular basis.
Unlike President Bush, who didn't allow polls on the Iraq War to determine his policies, President Obama will likely use popular opinion to justify sticking to his announced drawdown beginning in 2011. But this week's assessment gives Obama less cover than the administration would have liked -- or will admit. The five-page, unclassified summary of the assessment says clearly that while we've made progress against both al-Qaida and the Taliban, "these gains remain fragile and reversible."
If Afghanistan is truly the linchpin in the war on terror, the president needs to make the case directly and often. He needs to talk up the successes we've achieved and explain the challenges ahead. He needs to commit to winning this war and get the American people and those in his own party behind him -- he's already got most Republicans. Of course, this assumes that the president believes this -- and if he doesn't, then he should come clean.
Instead, the president mostly stays quiet, treating the war in Afghanistan as an afterthought. He appears to spend far less time, energy, and political capital on it than he has on virtually every other piece of his policy agenda. We've heard far more from this president about health care, government stimulus -- even basketball -- than we have about the war in Afghanistan. We don't need another wartime president like Lyndon Johnson, who tried to run the war in Vietnam out of the Oval Office, but we do need a sense that this president is engaged and truly cares about the outcome. If he doesn't convey this commitment, how will he rally the American people behind him?