August 21, 2009
By Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
President Obama this week called the war in Afghanistan one of
"necessity," not choice. It is, he proclaimed, the "central front
in the war on terrorism ... where the Taliban is gaining strength.
..." He solemnly concluded, "This is a war that we have to
All this is true. But keeping his promise to win the "good" war
in Afghanistan won't be easy. The president will face many tests
along the way. Starting now.
The first test is in responding to the outcome of Thursday's
elections in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has not yet
figured out how to integrate successfully its nation-building
efforts at the central government level with the much harder work
of dealing with local factions and tribes susceptible to Taliban
If the elections simply ratify the status quo in Kabul, the
disconnect between central and local governance will likely
continue. Corruption is undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan
government, and legitimacy is critical in building up a strong
Afghan army -- as well as U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the
countryside. Until corruption is at least minimized, the war cannot
The second test is whether Mr. Obama will back his new strategy
in Afghanistan with the resources needed to make it work. The
administrations policy, unveiled in March, puts a high priority on
protecting Afghan civilians as part of a counterinsurgency
There is already pushback from some Democrats who insist the
Afghan "quagmire" will cost too much and drain resources from
domestic programs. Mr. Obama's habit of trying to have it both ways
-- tacking back and forth between tough and soft statements and
ultimately splitting the difference on policy -- may not convince
these Democrats in the long run. Mr. Obama will probably end up
trying to keep his liberal critics at bay by giving Gen. Stan
McChrystal fewer troops than he needs.
That would produce an ever-worse dilemma down the road.
Insufficient troops will minimize battlefield success, ultimately
prolonging the war. The longer the war lasts, the more criticism
Mr. Obama will face from his political base. Time is not on his
side politically, and his antiwar position on Iraq actually puts
him in a politically weaker position than former President George
W. Bush was on war policies. Mr. Obama's base is not only more
hostile to some of his policies, but far less patient should he
make unpopular decisions.
That could lead to Mr. Obama's third big test - one that could
actually be his undoing. Whether the president knows it or not, his
biggest allies on Afghanistan are pro-national security
conservatives. Yet he still gives defensive speeches, as he did
this week before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, attacking Sen. John
McCain of Arizona and other conservatives over the war in Iraq.
This makes no sense. If he is serious about winning in
Afghanistan, he needs to stop this divisive rhetoric and realize
that his Afghan policies face a potential challenge from the right
flank as well.
So far, most conservatives are holding strong behind the war
effort. But there already are rumblings among some conservatives
that "Obama's war" may not be worth fighting. Far more threatening
than traditional isolationist or libertarian antiwar arguments are
so-called conservative realists who may conclude that only a
minimalist effort is all that is possible - or worse, needed - in
Afghanistan. Such people may come to think that the U.S. is caught
in the "graveyard of empires," a place where the more we try to do,
the worse the problem gets.
It's not that Mr. Obama will face a conservative revolt against
the war in Afghanistan. But when he needs conservatives to face
down the dovish left wing of his own party, he may not find them
True, some Republicans such as Mr. McCain are strongly
supportive and will likely remain so until the bitter end. But that
is not true for all Republicans in Congress. Facing a president
doing battle with them on domestic issues, some Republicans may not
be all that interested in providing political cover for "Obama's
war." This would be wrong-headed; yet it is a political reality
and, frankly, a price the president can expect to pay given his
fiercely partisan approach to the Iraq war, as well as domestic
Mr. Obama can pass these tests only by devising a workable
strategy on Afghanistan and sticking to it, much like Mr. Bush did
on Iraq, for as long as necessary and no matter what the political
Does he have the skills - and most importantly - the character
to do this? Given all the bodies cast under the presidential bus to
date, there is little so far to suggest that he does. And that
would be a shame.
What's at stake is not just whether history remembers Barack
Obama as the president who lost Afghanistan. It's about national
security and which side prevails in the conflict between freedom
and international terrorists.
Holmes is vice president of foreign- and defense-policy
studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times
President Obama this week called the war in Afghanistan one of "necessity," not choice. It is, he proclaimed, the "central front in the war on terrorism ... where the Taliban is gaining strength. ..." He solemnly concluded, "This is a war that we have to win."
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
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