Obama’s war faces hard choices

A priority task confronting President Obama when he returns from vacation is stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, which Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described as "serious and deteriorating."

Militarily, the Taliban, operating from safe havens in Pakistan, have stepped up their attacks on NATO-led forces and their rocketing and bombing of cities and villages. Sometimes the Taliban’s violence seems mindless, like the bombing that leveled a whole block in Kandahar, killing more than 40. Neither the location nor the victims had any military significance.

With the addition of 21,000 more troops this year, we now have 60,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, Obama will have to decide quickly whether — and how much — he wants to reinforce that number.

Although the overall commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has not asked for more troops, pending completion of a strategic review, U.S. commanders told Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to the region, that they need reinforcements.

Obama would have to make the determination in the face of declining support for a war that is now coming up on its eighth anniversary and probably the worst year for U.S. deaths in the Afghan theater. One poll shows that half of the country thinks the war is not worth fighting.

And it will be harder in these budget-stressed times to ignore the cost. Obama laudably promised to budget for Iraq and Afghanistan, but that means, unlike the Bush administration, he can’t soft-pedal the spending on those wars by keeping them off-budget.

Politically, the situation isn’t much better. The government of Hamid Karzai, whom we basically installed as president, is widely derided as corrupt and ineffectual. As of midweek, Karzai was leading in this month’s presidential election, but a victory will gain him little in the way of legitimacy. The outcome — a preliminary count is expected Saturday — will be tainted by spotty turnout and charges of fraud.

And the outcome may not be of any great credit to the United States. To bolster his election chances, Karzai named as his running mate Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former defense minister suspected of being a major drug trafficker, and brought back from exile Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord charged with numerous human-rights abuses, including the deaths of 2,000 Taliban prisoners in 2001. Rather awkwardly for the United States, both men were key allies in the overthrow of the Taliban government and the expulsion of al Qaeda.

If Iraq was President George W. Bush’s war, the popular view is that Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. The popular view is right.