Ignoring the overwhelming Democratic-voter opposition to the Afghanistan war threatens to cost Barack Obama the support of young people and anti-war voters who helped make him president. It could destroy any possibility of achieving his robust domestic agenda as well. President Obama needs an exit strategy instead of an escalation strategy.
Consider these amazing numbers from a Washington Post-ABC News Poll taken in August: A majority of all voters say the war is not worth its costs, and 70 percent of Democrats are opposed to the war. Support has dropped overall by 10 points since March, and 20 percent among self-described liberals. According to the Washington Post, "opposition to the Iraq war reached similar levels in the summer of 2004 and grew further through the 2006 midterm elections, becoming issue No. 1 in many congressional races that year."
The mass anti-war movement, which put more than 100,000 Americans on the streets at least 10 times between 2003 and 2007, has not been visible lately, but its return in some form is predictable as the issue of Afghanistan heats up. In the meantime, public opinion has shifted sharply on its own, perhaps because Americans are preoccupied with job loss and the recession, and harbor sour memories of the Iraq debacle. Obama now has a window of opportunity to change course.
Two premises of the war already are proving false: the first was the need to provide a secure and effective government in Afghanistan. Today, there is no sign of a viable client government in Kabul after eight years of war. Instead, the current regime of warlords and drug lords is being rendered illegitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people and the wider international community. Obama could blame the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai and turn to the face-saving, all-party-talks model applied in Northern Ireland and the Balkans. Otherwise, the quagmire will deepen.
The second was to dismantle a safe haven for al Qaeda in Afghanistan from which to launch future Sept. 11-style terrorist attacks. The evidence, however, suggests that al Qaeda has relocated to Pakistan. No one is talking about U.S. forces invading Pakistan - at least not yet. And al Qaeda attacks were launched from Yemen and Germany, but there's no plan to go after al Qaeda in those nations.
At the same time, the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan only increases the Muslim hatred that transforms itself into terrorist activities.
It is not likely that Obama will seize on these new realities to change direction. This leaves Obama stuck in his quagmire abroad while his support at home is sliding away.
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At the current casualty rate, more than 1,000 more Americans will be killed fighting in Afghanistan by 2011 as Obama enters his re-election year. (On the watch of George W. Bush, 700 Americans died in Afghanistan.) The number of wounded Americans will be triple that. Civilian casualties will be in the tens of thousands. Just as President Lyndon B. Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam destroyed his promise of "guns and butter," so Obama's war will undercut funding for his promised domestic initiatives: There's only enough money for one or the other. With nearly three-quarters of the Democrats in their districts opposed to the war, members of Congress will be hard-pressed to keep funding an unwinnable war with tax dollars taken from domestic spending.
In advance of the 2006 and 2008 federal primary elections, the grassroots peace movement organized to become the tipping point between winning and losing in close national races. We saw the results at the polls.
If the Obama administration's policies in Afghanistan continue to undermine the morale of those voters, it's difficult to see how the Democrats will retain control of government. I am a passionate Obama supporter, but, like many others, I cannot abandon my views in order to blindly support the president.
Some, like Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, claim there is "zero" chance that the Democrats will break with Obama over the war this coming year. I disagree.
Democrats will have to heed their anti-war constituencies rather than giving cover for the misguided military mission. A few months ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to support hearings or a vote on an exit strategy resolution authored by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., in deference to the White House. Now she is warning that House votes for the escalation might not be there. California state party Chairman John Burton, an old warhorse of the peace movement, goes further. In response to the party's 700-member progressive caucus, Burton recently attacked the war and supported McGovern's measure in an e-mail to 100,000 California Democrats.
Ironically, Obama's strongest base of support on a policy of escalation is becoming hard-core Republicans - those who will do anything to defeat him in the years ahead. The most difficult task in statecraft is to know when to hold them and when to fold them. The peace movement can help Obama extract himself and our nation from an untenable position. Otherwise, we will see the best hopes of his presidency - and our hopes, too - vanish in a long war.