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The day after Obama’s Afghan surge speech

The day after Obama’s Afghan surge speech
By Eric Black

It’s of course absurdly premature to make any judgments about the success or failure of the new policy, but nothing looks or feels better after a day of first reactions to the speech.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats like the policy much. Repubs are mostly bothered by the vague promise that some of the troops will come home in 2011, but the administration was quick to reassure them that this was not any kind of real commitment, rather an effort to signal the Afghans that they’d better get serious about taking control of their own country. As annoying as that is to Americans who like the idea of a time-limited commitment, it makes absolutely no sense if you are going to admit within one day that you didn’t really mean it. Is the administration hoping that the Afghans don’t read the papers?

Pres. Karzai continues to not say or do anything to suggest that he gets the message about ending the open corruption of his government. And his interior minister bravely predicts to the L.A. Times that Afghans will not be ready to police or defend their own country on the Obama timeline.

I had hoped yesterday that perhaps the secret ingredient that makes the Obama policy more logical is an understanding with the Pakistani government and military to catch the remnants of Al Qaida’s leadership in a pincer move on the Af-Pak border. (Otherwise, all the talk about needing to beef up U.S. forces in Afghanistan because there are nukes and Al Qaida members in Pakistan makes no sense to me.) Maybe there is such a secret agreement, but the unnamed Pakistanis whose views are summarized in this Wash Post piece expressed surprise and alarm that the U.S. surge will send the insurgents fleeing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. If my pincer fantasy were true, that would sort of be the hope and expectation. But a U.S. policy that would simply result in more troublemakers in Pakistan, where the nukes are, seems, um, ill-advised.

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Lastly, for the moment, allow me to return to yesterday’s discussion of Pres. Obama’s effort to disprove the similarities between this war and the Vietnam experience. Obama emphasized that this one was different, in part, because the U.S. was attacked, on 9/11/2001, by a group based in Afghanistan. I agree that this adds an element of legitimacy to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan that was always lacking in Viet Nam. But other than the international legal argument (which few other than myself seem to take seriously) this we-were-attacked-from-there argument seems relevant to the this-ain’t-no-Vietnam argument only if it translates to enduring U.S. public support for the Afghan mission. Certainly one of the post-Vietnam lessons was that a democracy can’t indefinitely maintain a military operation that the electorate no longer supports.

I certainly don’t want the commander-in-chief to make vital national security deceisions based on the latest polling.And I have declined to adopt a purely political analysis of Obama’s Afghan policy, although I see many others doing so.

But when you have a war on, and a deficit, and a fragile economic recovery, and the next election always looming, it’s foolish to ignore the question of public support for the war. So, just to lay a base for future comparison, here are two recent Gallup polls on views of Afghanistan, both taken before the speech.

In this one, 37 percent of Americans said they favored sending 40,000 more troops, 39 percent said they favored reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the swing group of 10 percent said send more troops, but fewer than 40,000. Obama is sending 30,000. And in this one, taken a week and a half before the policy rollout, approvers of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan were outnumbered by disapprovers 55-35 percent. The question, asked three times since July, shows a strong steady decline in approval of Obama’s Afghan policies and, if you click through to the poll and scroll down to the partisan breakdown, shows that the decline in support is happening at an almost identical pace among Dems, Repubs and independents.