Further Military Commitment in Afghanistan May Be Toughest Sell Yet

WASHINGTON -- Dumping billions of dollars into a war overseas was already unpopular before President Obama was elected, so upping the ante in Afghanistan in the midst of a global recession will be a very tough sell for this administration, say some national security analysts.

"I think the American public is preoccupied with their pocketbook, and right now to tell them that this is going to be a long haul, and it's going to cost more money and that more American lives will be at stake, will be a hard sell -- you bet," said Gordon Adams, professor of foreign policy at American University and former Clinton administration official.

"I think in terms of public support -- people are pretty wary right now," said Erik Leaver, research fellow with the liberal Institute for Foreign Policy Studies (IFPS).

The president is expected to outline his strategy for Afghanistan as early as this week. As many as 70,000 U.S. troops on the ground -- almost double the number pledged to the war right now -- has been floated as a total possible force strength there. Obama indicated in February that he would increase the number of U.S. forces from 38,000 to 55,000.

He is expected to insist that U.S. forces will focus more on counter-insurgency operations and assisting a "civilian surge" of government workers and private contractors to help rebuild Afghan institutions after decades of strife and instability. The president is not likely to schedule a timed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. 

Senior administration officials have said Obama wants nearly to double the Afghan police and military forces to about 400,000 and wants to work more with Pakistan to control insurgents on the border, a greater challenge than ever considering the recent spike in violence throughout Pakistan and that country's political and economic instability.

Presidential aides also has said the strategy would include new efforts to combat Afghanistan's massive opium trade, which counts for a majority of the struggling country's gross domestic product but is the primary funding behind Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist organizations in the region.

During a visit to Europe this week, administration officials are working to solidify support from NATO partners, which have some 32,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The coordination comes ahead of Obama's trip to a G20 meeting next week in London.

Speaking Wednesday at the White House, Obama said NATO commitment is crucial. 

"We've been in close consultation with them and we believe that we are going to be able to ensure that the NATO members who made so many sacrifices and been working so hard already are reinvigorated and the coordination that is going to be taking place will be even more successful to us as we complete the successful NATO mission," he said.

Added NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, "We are, of course, awaiting the results of the review going on in the United States of America, very relevant for the other allies, very relevant for NATO and the other eyes and will be discussed at the summit -- Afghanistan being NATO's most important operational priority."

Supporters say the president is charting a pragmatic approach that does not call for a full-blown surge of U.S. troops, as occurred in Iraq in 2007 when 30,000 additional troops entered the country to bring the total force to 170,000. 

"This is going to be solved regionally," said Lawrence Korb, senior national security expert at the Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the administration.

Korb and his associates released a report this week entitled, "Sustainable Security in Afghanistan: Crafting an Effective and Responsible Strategy for the Forgotten Front," which is said to reflect the administration's approach and underscores the need for it to be "effective" and "convincing" to the American public.

The center's report says the only way the U.S. can prevent Afghanistan "from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists and to ensure the deteriorating security situation there does not envelop the surrounding region in a broader power struggle" is by "using all the elements of U.S. national power -- diplomatic, economic and military -- in a sustained effort that could last as long as another 10 years."

The Bush administration, the report says, tried to fight and build Afghanistan on the cheap and committed too few troops and resources to it from the beginning. It's not that the policy failed, the report concludes, "it was never given a chance to succeed." 

In a press briefing after meeting with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Tuesday, Obama said the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan must keep "on the offensive," and an international commitment could take "several years."

"My expectations would be that over the next several years, you are going to see a much more comprehensive strategy, a more focused strategy, and a more disciplined strategy to achieve our common goals," Obama said. 

U.S. officials quoted in news reports ahead of the administration's announcement say the plan incorporates goals lasting from three to five years. Obama made it clear in a Sunday interview with "60 Minutes" that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will not be indefinite. 

"There's got to be an exit strategy," he said. 

But selling the plan to a wary public will have its challenges.

Earlier this month, a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 42 percent of Americans felt that the Afghanistan war was "a mistake." That's up from 30 percent earlier this year and 34 percent in August 2008. Similarly, only 38 percent of respondents said they felt the war was "going well," the lowest point since Gallup began asking the question in 2006, when the number was at 49 percent.

Click here to read the poll results.

James Carafano, national security expert for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said public opinion polls often fluctuate when operations seem to be going badly, and that a reversal in sentiment will likely occur if the news improves from Afghanistan.

Like in the debate over Iraq, Carafano warned that talk of an "exit strategy" is a "tool of maintaining public support," but one that plays into the enemy's hands.

Last year was the bloodiest year for coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, with 294 deaths. This year, 74 soldiers have been killed. A total of 1,119 coalition soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 -- of them, 671 were American, according to icasualties.org

Neglecting Afghanistan could impact U.S. national security, but winning over public opinion will require explaining that operations there will not be a "forever war," say analysts.

"It can be sold to the American public, because this is where the attacks of September 11 came from," Korb said, "and we are directly threatened."

But Americans who voted for Obama in November because they believed he would reverse the foreign policy "mistakes" of the Bush administration and bring an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be disappointed, said IFPS fellow Leaver. 

Obama's new plan for putting more troops into Afghanistan "seems to be a continuation of the Bush policy rather than a new era of change that we were promised. In my mind, we are leading too strongly with the military again," Leaver said.

Leaver said Obama will have an easier time selling the  war to his liberal base if he emphasizes political and social developments over a military build-up. 

"There is differing opinion on what sort of troop levels there should be, what the appropriate role of NATO is," said Leaver. He said he recently met with other progressive leaders, including non-governmental aid groups that are committed to "getting Afghanistan right." 

"[Progressives] want to be seen as doing something, and not abandoning the country," he said.

Adams said he not optimistic that any nation-building plan will work at all.

"We're pretty good about getting rid of old governments, but not really good at building new ones, I don't think any other country has that skill, either," he said. "We can burn millions of dollars and lose thousands of American lives pretending we know how -- but we don't know how."

He said he is concerned that in an attempt to play "catch up" in the so-far unsuccessful and largely ignored Afghanistan policy held over from the last administration, Obama is sending the country into a quagmire.

"I'm nervous about it.  I'm fearful that trying to do this in a place as difficult as Afghanistan, it will become a swamp. And I don't want another round of super-optimistic policy officials parading around the country telling us how wonderful we are for doing this, when we really don't know what we are doing," he said.

At the same time, Obama's announcement comes amid unprecedented trillion-dollar bailouts of American banks and the scandal-embattled insurer, American International Group (AIG). American attention is focused squarely at home.

"Economic realities are closing in on the Obama administration," said (Ret.) U.S Army Col. Douglas MacGregor. "Printing and borrowing money to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a solution. ... Before Americans go deeper into debt, they will demand cuts in federal spending and those cuts will come from defense."

Though the administration has not put a price tag on the plan, Korb points out that the U.S. has committed just $170 billion since 2002 to Afghanistan, compared to the estimated $700 billion in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Reduced operations in Iraq are predicted to save approximately $330 billion over the next five years, of which $25 billion a year could be spent on additional military resources for Afghanistan and $5 billion a year on increased U.S. foreign aid and diplomatic operations, said Korb.

"From a financial point of view," Korb said, "the plan for withdrawing from Iraq will free up the resources. The cost (overall) will be less."