Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Af/Pak strategy: Setting the stage at home

Guest post by Jessie Daniels

Jessie Daniels is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. She is currently a second-year masters candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. From 2003 to 2007, she served as a legislative aide for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), focusing on national security issues.

President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is an effort to achieve success in a troubled region. Success at maintaining domestic support on the home front, however, will require a different strategy altogether. This can only happen if he prepares the American public is ready for what is ahead.

It's going to take some time to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan has never been a stable country, while Pakistan is nuclear-armed and teetering. This double whammy presents a serious obstacle to America's long-term goals in the region, and our NATO partners seem reluctant to provide many more resources to help complete the mission.

At the same time, the economy is suffocating all other news stories from the front page. When General Petraeus went to Congress in 2007 to talk about Iraq, there was a media circus. When he returned to Capitol Hill to talk about Af/Pak strategy, reporters barely noticed.

It just goes to show that preparing the public for the long road ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to be a tough sell when Americans are more worried about losing their homes or their jobs. According to a recent
Gallup poll, while it's true that 60% of the public support a US troop presence in Afghanistan for two years or more, a majority also believe the US should play a limited role. They want us to go after terrorists, but they're not keen on nation building. This could spell trouble for Obama's strategy. Furthermore, there may be backlash on the Afghan side too if the nation building effort is slow to work and Afghan civilian death and destruction rise.

Failure to lay the groundwork for what the public should expect in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have serious consequences in the near future. What if things take a turn for the worst and we need to send additional troops? What will happen when casualties mount for U.S. troops? How will Americans feel about shouldering an increasing burden if our allies continue their reluctance to share that burden?

The president could use the upcoming meetings between the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan next as a catalyst to start an open conversation with the public about the challenges we face in carrying out a successful Af/Pak strategy. Additionally, articulating a clear endgame will go a long way toward keeping the public on board. Establishing clear markers that Congress and the public understand is the first step in this process. Unwarranted optimism, like we saw from President Bush on Iraq, is a bad idea that undermines public support. President Obama will have to have to be straightforward about the difficulties that lay ahead. He has pledged to "stay on the offensive" in Afghanistan, but he will need the sustained support of the American people to win the war.

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