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As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama denounced the war in Iraq and U.S. strategy there, vowing if elected to draw down troops and send them to Afghanistan to address the growing threat from al-Qaida and the Taliban.
“There is no military solution in Iraq,” Obama said.
Now, with mounting U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, waning public support for the war and a dire assessment of the situation on the ground by his commanding general, Obama may be forced to decide there is no military solution in Afghanistan, either.
“He really did make a strong point as a candidate about the significance of Afghanistan as the place to fight against terrorism, but it’s a lot easier said than done,” said Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Alabama’s Birmingham-Southern College. “You have a sense now that the current thinking among many around him is that this is a loser, that it really does resemble Vietnam.”
Campaign rhetoric is coming up against a tough reality for the president, who now must make a crucial decision about how to proceed in what he’s called a war of necessity.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that whatever course Obama chose would be consistent with his pledge during the campaign to treat Afghanistan as the central front in the war on terrorism.
“There isn’t a military solution alone to any of this,” Gibbs said, but rather “a series of solutions.”
At issue is the recent assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that more resources are needed to fight the Taliban or any hope of a military victory is lost. McChrystal has asked for up to 40,000 more troops, a major combat commitment to a mountainous, ungoverned nation that has been a quagmire for every invader.
During the campaign, Obama vowed as president to send two more brigades — about 7,000 combat troops — to Afghanistan. He has done that and more, sending 21,000 troops to Afghanistan in March while vowing a new, robust strategy to keep the Taliban from returning to power.
But now, because of McChrystal’s report, Obama is weighing the request for additional troops against advice from others on his national security team.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan, are said to be leaning in favor of a troop increase while Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not signaled his preference. Others are more skeptical, including National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Vice President Joe Biden who wants Obama to consider dialing down U.S. forces in favor of a counterterrorism campaign along the Pakistan border where many al-Qaida operatives are believed to be hiding.
On that score, another campaign pledge could face a test. In August 2007, Obama made a major foreign policy speech in which he said that as president, he might order U.S. troops to breach the Pakistan border and nab terrorism suspects if there were “actionable intelligence” of high-level targets.
Obama’s threat of military force in Pakistan was criticized at the time by Clinton, then Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, and by Republican John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. Both Clinton and McCain suggested it showed Obama did not understand the complexities of the region and that it undermined the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and its leader at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Even now, some of Obama’s political allies are warning him against taking such a path, including Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO.
“Taking the fight directly into Pakistan with ground forces risks expanding the conflict and undercutting a fragile Pakistani civilian government,” Clark wrote in a recent op-ed piece.
Right now, the border is being patrolled by unmanned aircraft, or drones, that have launched missile attacks on dozens of targets. Officials said the drone attacks have succeeded in taking out dozens of suspected terrorists.
Obama finds himself in a situation not unlike that confronting President George W. Bush in early 2007: Whether to buck public opinion and commit thousands of additional troops in a country riven by rivalries with an unstable and possibly illegitimately elected government.
But Bush’s quandary was about Iraq. And faced with a growing insurgency and deteriorating military situation, Bush accepted the recommendation of his commanders and sent some 25,000 additional troops. Obama strongly opposed the increase and voted as a senator in May 2007 to cut money for troops there.
The strategy proved largely to be a success. It stabilized the country and reduced the violence enough that the U.S. is on track to begin drawing down troops next year.
To be sure, the strategic challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t fully analogous, including the decision to send more troops.
Topographically, Iraq is much less daunting; its hot desert terrain makes a more manageable environment for conventional military maneuvers than does Afghanistan’s often snowy and impassable mountains.
Iraq also proved to have no weapons of mass destruction and few if any links to al-Qaida or any other terrorist organizations before the U.S. invasion. Afghanistan, by contrast, served as a safe haven for al-Qaida plotters who launched the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Beth Fouhy covers politics for The Associated Press.