Escalation in Afghanistan?

In recent weeks, military commanders in Afghanistan have told the Obama administration that they do not have enough troops to succeed in their mission in Afghanistan (it is unclear how many more will be needed).  The new American strategy there is to focus on protecting Afghan villages and towns from Taliban insurgents, which is more manpower-intensive than search-and-destroy operations.  The Obama administration is now weighing whether to significantly increase troop levels, which currently stand at 70,000.

One political problem confronting President Obama is the decrease in public support for the war effort at home and abroad.  In a CBS News poll released earlier this week, 75 percent of those polled opposed sending more soldiers to Afghanistan, while 41 percent wanted some or all of the troops withdrawn (in 2001, 90 percent of Americans supported the decision to go to war there).  Liberal Democrats in Congress are also expressing a desire to end the war soon, although Democratic leaders still support the president’s policies.

Republican leaders also support the war effort, including Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, and have indicated that they would continue to support it even if more troops were required.

European allies in NATO may soon withdraw their forces from Afghanistan in response to strong opposition from their constituents for continuing the war.  If that happens, more US soldiers may be required to fill the void.

It is unlikely that the Obama administration will scale down the American military commitment in Afghanistan anytime soon.  The president has consistently said that the mission there is vital to America’s national security and the US cannot allow the country to become a safe haven for Al Qaeda.  Domestic support for the war effort has not eroded completely (a slim majority are still in favor of it), so the Obama administration has some time to try to turn things around.  But it is unlikely that the Taliban will be subdued in the next few years, and if there is still a large American military presence in Afghanistan three years from now it could threaten Obama’s chances for reelection, in which case the president will have to decide if the war is important enough to risk his political future on its continuation.

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