Still Worth Fighting?

Our View: Waning Support For Afghan War Spells Trouble For The Obama Presidency

August 30, 2009

August has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the eight-year war in Afghanistan, and as the security situation continues to deteriorate amid charges of widespread fraud in last week's national elections there, the outcome of the conflict seems as uncertain as ever.

Friday, a roadside bomb that killed a soldier brought to 45 the number of U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan this month, surpassing the previous record of 44 in July. Presently there are approximately 60,000 U.S. troops in the country, with 29,000 more expected to arrive by the end of the year. But reports of stiffening Taliban resistance to the American buildup suggest that U.S. casualties there are almost certain to continue rising.

Meanwhile, public support for the war in the U.S. appears to be wavering, with some commentators even calling the conflict unwinnable. Unless U.S. commanders can turn things around, President Barack Obama, who entered office pledging to end the war in Iraq so the U.S. could concentrate on defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, may have to scale back his ambitious plans for rebuilding the country and find a way to define victory that would allow him to start bringing the troops home.

So far, the war in Afghanistan has remained a relatively low priority on the public's radar screen, where it's been overshadowed by the far more controversial conflict in Iraq, the domestic economic crisis and the debate over health care reform.

By labeling the fighting in Afghanistan a war of necessity rather than one of choice because of its direct link to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, President Obama has temporarily succeeded in blunting much of the kind of political opposition that coalesced around the Iraq war. But if U.S. casualties continue to rise, the pressure of public opinion in the U.S. will inevitably build to change strategies, redefine the mission or simply declare victory and get out.

Such a day of reckoning may be fast approaching. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll reported that a majority of Americans no longer believe the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, and only a quarter think the U.S. should send more troops there. And while most Americans still say they have confidence in the U.S.' ability to achieve its primary objectives of defeating the Taliban, rebuilding the country's shattered economy and promoting an effective Afghan government reasonably free of corruption, opinion is about equally split on whether the U.S. is presently meeting those goals.

Moreover, Mr. Obama risks alienating his Democratic base if he accepts an anticipated request from the military for even more troops in Afghanistan. The poll found that six out of 10 Democrats opposed a troop increase, and the proportion was even higher among liberals. Coupled with declining approval ratings for his handling of other issues such as corporate bailouts and health care reform, the president could soon find himself in the uncomfortable position of having taken ownership of a war that significant majorities in his own party no longer support.

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