White House officials are increasingly worried liberal, anti-war Democrats will demand a premature end to the Afghanistan war before President Barack Obama can show signs of progress in the eight-year conflict, according to senior administration sources.
These fears, which the officials have discussed on the condition of anonymity over the past few weeks, are rising fast after U.S. casualties hit record levels in July and August.
The aides also expressed concern that Afghan election returns, still being tallied, will result in a narrow reelection for President Hamid Karzai that could result in qualms about his legitimacy — “Tehran II,” as one official put it, in reference to the disputed Iranian election.
The result: some think Afghanistan - not health care - will be the issue that defines the early years of the Obama administration.
“There’s no question that the drumbeat is going to get louder and louder on the left, and you’ll see some fall-off on the right,” said Matt Bennett of the think tank Third Way, the moderate voice of the progressive movement. “His supporters on the Hill are fighting a really serious political battle to keep the criticism under control.”
The Afghanistan conflict, which has gotten relatively little attention in part because Obama talks far more often about domestic concerns, is roaring back to the top of the Obama agenda as Congress is about to return from weeks of meetings with often unhappy voters.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) last week called for a timetable to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan — the same tactic he and other war opponents used to build congressional support for forcing an end to the Iraq war.
But Obama officials — including National Security Adviser James Jones and Defense Secretary Robert Gates — know the problem is much bigger than Feingold and timetables. They anticipate a growing number of anti-war liberals will call, with increasing force, for an end to the conflict when lawmakers return. Cost could become an issue, too. With deficits high, there will be heavy pressure on Obama to find savings somewhere in 2010 — and war critics see Afghanistan as a good place to start.
George F. Will opened a new fissure among conservatives with a column Tuesday calling for the U.S. to pull all ground troops out of Afghanistan, on the theory on the French general Charles de Gaulle that genius “sometimes consists of knowing when to stop.”
But it’s Democratic opposition that could force Obama to retreat on what he has called a "war of necessity."
To try to salve critics, the administration has been developing a series of numerical indicators, scheduled to be sent to Capitol Hill by Sept. 24, that are designed to sharpen U.S. goals by measuring everything from civilian deployments to the proportion of the Afghan population that is secured.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told POLITICO: “We have to show the American people that all this effort, all these resources, all these lives are making a difference.”
White House officials expect that a whole new national conversation about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan, and how, will be prompted by recommendations for strategy adjustments that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made in an assessment of the war that went to the Pentagon on Monday and is likely to be delivered to the White House in the next week.
McChrystal held off from requesting additional troops in the assessment, but administration officials expect he will ask for at least 10,000 more soldiers and Marines later this fall, on top of the 20,000 additional troops Obama authorized in February and March.
“Our point here is: Let’s see what’s working, and what’s not, and base it on the facts, not a gut instinct that most commanders have, that more is better,” a senior administration official said. “We’re prepared to shift and adjust, depending on what we see work. We need to let this strategy take hold, and see what we’re doing well, and if there are deficiencies, before coming in with any requests for additional resources.”
Nevertheless, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at Monday’s briefing: “I think there's broad agreement that for many years our effort in Afghanistan has been under-resourced politically, militarily, economically.”
Liberal House members have already made it clear they will balk at future funding requests, but now the administration is trying to make sure that leaders and key committee chairmen don’t also lose their stomach for the conflict after two months in a row of record U.S. casualties since the 2001 invasion.
“It doesn’t need to be victory in 12 months to 18 months -- that’s not realistic,” a top administration official said. “But the American people needed to have a sense that we are moving in the right direction. We need to bring about noticeable change on the ground. We have to start to show progress.”
Bennett, of Third Way, said Americans need to recognize that the situation Obama inherited in Afghanistan “is as bad as the economy was -- heading off the rails in just as dramatic a way.”
“In both cases, the president took a bunch of action very quickly to get back on track, and it will take time to show benefits,” Bennett said.
But unlike with the economy, there are few signs of “green shoots” in Afghanistan.
In August, U.S. deaths in Afghanistan passed 50 for the first month since the 2001 invasion, adding to administration worries about keeping key lawmakers on board. A senior official said the White House always “knew it was going to get worse before it got better.”
“These casualties, as gut-wrenching as they are, are not a surprise to anyone,” the official said.
“When you put in 20,000 additional forces and you deploy them to regions of the country that had been untouched by coalition forces for a long time -- had been basically ceded to the Taliban -- it’s not at all unexpected that that would then result in difficult confrontations, and American and coalition lives lost. But, ultimately, by going after the Taliban in these strongholds, it’ll turn the tide in those areas.”