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Obama's Afghanistan Problem

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President Obama's request today for billions of dollars to increase the US commitment in Afghanistan will likely be well received by most members of Congress. But he should not get used to it.

Reflecting growing casualties and lackluster progress in the 7-year-old war, only 36 percent of Americans now think things are going well in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times/CBS poll this week. So, like President Bush in Iraq, Obama is trying to turn around the war by sending more US troops into the combat zone.

In recent weeks, the President ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, a significant escalation, yet short of what the military commanders originally wanted to fight the Taliban resurgence. Resembling a Rumsfeld-like approach, the Obama strategy calls for a relatively small footprint and a focus on doubling the size of the Afghanistan army and police force over the next two years -- an ambitious and risky goal considering our experiences in Iraq.

But regardless of how many troops the President is sending to Afghanistan, he is out of sync with the American public. The NYT/CBS poll found that fewer than four in 10 Americans want to see more US troops in Afghanistan. To the contrary, a plurality wants the President to either decrease troop levels or hold them steady. And this is before this summer's warmer weather, a revitalized Taliban, and the presence of additional US troops could lead to even more casualties.

That is not to argue that President Obama's new strategy is wrong. In fact, Republican leaders were quick to offer their support. But Americans' instinctual opposition to wars without exit strategies leaves questions about how long the president can sustain the political support within his own party required to fund the massive, multi-year effort he is clearly envisioning.

Given these dilemmas, one might expect Obama to mount an aggressive campaign to educate and rally the public around his new Afghanistan strategy, just as he did for his economic stimulus and budget.

But instead, he's doing the opposite: Rather than announce the new Afghanistan strategy at his latest prime-time press conference, his administration leaked the plan to the press two nights later. And rather than highlight his new strategy by visiting Afghanistan when he was overseas this week, he went to Baghdad to check on a mission that is succeeding thanks to the strategy he inherited.

Today's Afghanistan situation is eerily similar to the Iraq situation in 2005. Then, as now, a president with a fresh electoral mandate used his political capital to push his domestic agenda, rather than to build support for a vital but faltering war. Like his predecessor, Obama is focused on using his presidential bully-pulpit to make the case for reshaping domestic policies, rather than preparing the nation for the potentially tough war fighting ahead. Considering recent history, that is clearly a potentially perilous strategy.

Make no mistake: Obama is committing the US to a multi-year escalation in Afghanistan that will be costly in both American blood and treasure. Without first rallying the public's support, he is now asking Congress to fund the first installment of his escalation. No doubt he will get the funding this time -- but given the realities on the ground in Afghanistan and inside the Democratic base, it seems unlikely that subsequent requests will be as well received.