Monday, August 24, 2009

Avoiding defeat in Afghanistan

Guest post by Peter S. Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. In April, he wrote a post for The Reaction on "the lessons of Sri Lanka."

Last Friday, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge revealed the obvious -- that the George W. Bush Administration had pressured him to raise the terror alert level in advance of the 2004 elections. This is significant for many reasons, but what struck me was its relation to one of the most significant issues the Obama Administration faces: the possibility that the American people may tire of our crucial efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Bush maintained support for his "war on terror" by manipulating public fears, something Obama, thankfully, seems unwilling to do. But in the absence of an apparently imminent threat, will the American public continue to support sending forces to Afghanistan, or will they punish Obama for his attempts to take ownership of this conflict?

Two recent sets of news stories inspire the question. The first is the admission of Mr. Ridge. As
Howard Kurtz noted, this is not shocking and is hardly a moral victory for Ridge, who acquiesced in the face of the Bush Administration's political duplicity and incompetence until it became (literally) profitable to speak up. It broke, however, around the same time as a Washington Post-ABC News Poll indicated declining support for the war, and an op-ed by Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass provided intellectual heft to public skepticism about the war. The question becomes, then, assuming the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting, how do Obama and his progressive supporters regain the public's attention without resorting to Bush-style threat inflation?

First, the assumption of the war's significance must be defended. Unlike Iraq, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was based on a direct threat to the homeland. The war in Afghanistan was neglected under Bush, but Obama has changed this situation, assigning political and military leadership that takes counterinsurgency seriously. The new U.S. approach involves attempts to minimize civilian casualties and improve infrastructure, in addition to targeting Taliban and al-Qaida (AQ) militants. Serious problems remain, and U.S. casualties have tragically increased in recent months. Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, though -- as Haass suggests -- would lead to a renewed threat from AQ, and possibly destabilize Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Moreover, our commitment to Afghanistan is an opportunity to demonstrate the viability of Obama's broader progressive approach to national security, which -- as I have argued before -- weds concerns for human rights with the dictates of military necessity.

Why is the American public now tiring of the war? Because, in short, Afghanistan no longer scares us. After 9/11, additional attacks seemed inevitable, leading to strong support for Bush. As the link between AQ and Iraq became tenuous, Bush skillfully manipulated the public's fears to preclude tough questions about his policies. Now, however, the public is distracted from terrorism by more imminent domestic fears of "death panels" and layoffs, and the welfare of the Afghan people seems a distant concern.

What, then, should we do? Withdrawal is not an option. In addition to the reasons outlined above, a failure on the part of the Obama Administration will be painted as a sign of weakness by Republicans and return America to tragic GOP dominance over security issues. Progressives must instead remember a crucial element of American identity, and its implications for foreign policy. Americans want to believe that their interests and their ideals are aligned, and that the policies of their leaders are an expression of both, a connection Bush so skillfully made in his second inaugural speech. The policies Obama is advancing in Afghanistan -- unlike many efforts by Bush and other Republicans -- satisfy both conditions.

Increased support for Obama's policies will only occur through a concerted effort on the part of their proponents. First, Obama should devote more time to justifying the war -- instead of fixating on the domestic issues that have been the focus of most of his speeches -- as he runs the risk of losing initiative on national security concerns. Second, Democrats must unite behind the president's policies. At this point, Republicans are more supportive of the war than are Democrats, a situation that must change. Democrats should separate lingering resentment of the Bush-era foreign policies from Obama's efforts in Afghanistan; we must recognize the beneficial nature of the president's approach to Afghanistan and realize it is an extension of progressive ideals. Only then can a concerted effort be undertaken to shift public opinion and reveal the positive contributions Obama's policies have made to U.S. national security.

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