President Barack Obama is struggling to fashion a new strategy for Afghanistan at a time of gathering crisis in the region, a floundering western mission and rising public weariness in America with the war.
In what is widely characterized as a momentous decision that could define his presidency, his deliberations over this are taking place when opinion in America is deeply divided between those who support sending more troops to Afghanistan and those who advocate a narrower, less perilous mission with limited goals.
The split in public opinion increasingly reflects a partisan divide, leaving President Obama in a politically difficult position in which support for continuing or expanding the military commitment comes from the opposition party, while his own Democratic Party is deeply sceptical whether the war in Afghanistan is even “worth fighting”.
The latest opinion poll conducted by the Washington Post-ABC News shows that 61 per cent of Democrats are opposed to sending additional forces to Afghanistan as requested by US military commanders. But 69 per cent of the Republicans polled in the survey support more troops.
President Obama is taking his time over the policy review that has now been in progress for several weeks. This is as much because of the imperative to resolve the Afghan political crisis sparked by the fraudulent presidential election, as Obama’s apparent recognition of the limits of American military power in being able to turn a dire situation into a winnable war.
This cautious and deliberative approach has invited sharp criticism from his opponents who have accused him of “dithering” and prevarication at a critical moment. Former vice president Dick Cheney directed the harshest criticism yet at the president, arguing that his “waffling” was compromising America’s security.
Obama’s predicament is how to balance rising Democratic opposition to the war with the risks of not accepting his military commander’s recommendation for as many as 40,000 additional troops for Afghanistan, without which General Stanley McChrystal says the war will likely be lost. Obama knows that not heeding the military’s counsel would expose him to the charge of “endangering America’s defence”. But ignoring the sentiments in his own party could jeapordise support for his ambitious, transformative domestic reform agenda.
His challenge is to decide on a strategy that is realistic and attainable and for which support within his party and the public can be sustained. He is trying to avoid the impression of a president who is rushing into military escalation but he also does not want to be judged as a president who lost a war he has characterized as one of necessity, not of choice.
With the announcement that there will be a runoff Afghan presidential election on November 7, (a face-saver engineered by Washington) it is now quite likely that President Obama’s decision on troops will await the holding of that poll. Its results will not be known till end November. Fears however linger whether the runoff will meet the test of credibility.
Meanwhile the memory of Vietnam is casting a shadow over the intense public debate on Afghanistan, and parallels are frequently being drawn between the two conflicts. Some are using the Vietnam analogy to warn in general terms of the dangers of an open-ended military commitment while others are pointing to specific lessons from that experience. Then there are those who question whether the comparison is even valid.
The legacy of Vietnam has long haunted the Democrats and its lessons are said to be heavily weighing on the Obama White House. Some officials have been using that parallel to argue that an open-ended military commitment is unsustainable and that if the mission in Afghanistan did not succeed in another year, it would be re-visited.
The alternate strategy that Vice President Joe Biden champions – to narrow the US mission to counterterrorism focused on dismantling Al-Qaeda rather than pacifying Afghanistan – is predicated on the concern that the US could become trapped in a quagmire in Afghanistan.
Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who became a vociferous anti-war campaigner, has most frequently drawn comparisons. He wrote in an article last month that one of the lessons of Vietnam is that troops should not be committed to the battlefield without a clear idea of what they are expected to accomplish, how long it will take and whether the consent of the American people can be maintained.
In a spate of articles, analysts have reminded President Obama that he can choose to either follow President John F Kennedy or Lynden B Johnson. The most compelling case in this regard has been made by Gordon M. Goldstein, the author of a recently published book, “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam”.
Kennedy, says Goldstein, questioned the counsel of his security advisers who said in 1961 that only a significant increase in troops could save the government in South Vietnam from collapse. He refused to authorize more combat troops but also discarded the option of abandoning Saigon, preferring to take a middle path.
Johnson on the other hand, Goldstein writes, agreed to a major troop build-up in 1965 after he received a warning from his advisers, including his national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, that the war in Vietnam was being lost. The US military commander in Vietnam, General William Westmorland requested 41,000 additional troops to be followed by as many later.
This, Goldstein says, urged Johnson to embark on a ruinous course of military escalation after a debate in which troop numbers were the focus rather than a meticulous consideration of strategy or its chances of success. Johnson rejected the middle path advocated by William Bundy, the brother of the national security adviser. That fateful decision put paid to his domestic programme of ‘renewing the nation’ as he mired the country in fighting a losing war in Vietnam.
Warnings that Obama should resist becoming a Johnson to McChrystal Westmoreland-like call for more troops are evidently having an impact. Public opinion seems receptive to this reading of the past into the present. In a CNN poll 52 per cent of the respondents said that the eight-year old conflict in Afghanistan resembles the Vietnam war that lasted 16 years.
Some commentators contest the Afghanistan-Vietnam comparison and argue that no military mission has matched Vietnam in terms of number of troops deployed, amount of casualties and its consequences. They point out that at the peak of the war in Vietnam, the US had 536,000 troops as compared to 68,000 it is expected to have at year end in Afghanistan. Moreover most of those in Vietnam were draftees not volunteer soldiers.
Obama has to square the risk of derailing his domestic agenda amid falling public support for the conflict with charting a course which attains his core goal of defeating Al Qaeda. Whether this means approving McChrystal’s proposal for a full-scale counterinsurgency strategy to stabilize Afghan society is unclear.
Obama has said that the choice is not between doubling down or leaving Afghanistan. This indicates that in confronting the complex crosscurrents before him he will opt for the middle ground – the so called Goldilocks option, of neither picking the bowl that is too hot nor too cold. In other words he may authorise a modest number of additional troops while redefining the mission and its goals. Until he announces his strategy the Vietnamization of the debate will continue with cautionary tales being recounted in abundance.