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Daniel Burrell Headshot

Win or Come Home In Afghanistan

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Speaking last week to the UN General Assembly, President Obama told world leaders that we need a "global response to global concerns." This call for greater engagement and multilateralism is the right approach for US foreign policy. It is an imperative, however, not just on issues such as Iran, where our allies have been cooperative in supporting tougher sanctions, or on nuclear non-proliferation, where Moscow and Beijing have recently showed a willingness to lead with America, but also on the more divisive issue of Afghanistan. America is trending deeper into the Afghan war without adequate resources or political support, at home or abroad. This issue is now the greatest test of the President's foreign policy leadership.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released last week indicates waning domestic support for US involvement in Afghanistan, and even stronger opposition to troop level increases. Only 39% of Americans favor the war and 63% percent believe that we should hold stable or reduce our forces on the ground, not increase them.

Counteracting this deterioration in popular support will require a change in the current US approach, requiring greater NATO involvement, but also clear conviction by the President that increased troop levels, technical support, and supplies will make the conflict winnable. Without a clear path to accomplishing this, the President cannot ask that more American or European lives be placed at risk, and he should begin the process of limiting US involvement in Afghanistan.

But to the extent that Obama remains committed to the Afghan conflict as a war of "necessity, not choice," with success hinging mostly on resolving the "adequate resources" question, he must be willing to communicate a more forceful message to NATO countries -- that continued US involvement and leadership in Afghanistan will be closely tethered to a correlating European response, commitment to shared objectives, and a unified strategy.

The consequences of not re-fashioning US policy in this way seems clear, especially in light of the recent memo written by General McChrystal assessing US involvement in Afghanistan. In that memo he stated that "failure to provide adequate resources ... risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs and ultimately, a critical loss of political support," and that "any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure."

President Obama must confront this stark reality by acknowledging what his predecessor couldn't - that there are real limitations to US power and resources. But he must also take a series of steps to set parameters around further US involvement in Afghanistan, as well as to win back popular support among the American public:

First, the President must tether any further troop commitments, US or European, to a legitimate political resolution of the Afghan election. NATO's main role in Afghanistan is to assist the Afghan government in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance. But clear evidence of fraud and electoral manipulation would create resulting illegitimacy for the government that would make the mission much less tenable politically and far more likely to fail militarily as well. This is especially true in light of recent concerns raised by the US government's highest-ranking UN diplomat in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, about electoral inconsistencies and potential fraud.

Second, if there is a resolution to the election that is workable, the President needs to re-make the case for the Afghan war to the American public in an address that clearly defines the mission, our reasons for being there, the changing strategic focus on the ground, a military assessment, and the resources needed to win. Popular support for the conflict relies primarily on coherence in these areas and justifiably, the public is seeking answers. Over the past six months, however, the President has been quiet on Afghanistan much to the detriment of popular support. His last major address on the subject was in March, but since this time we have had substantial troop level increases, more than 21,00 in total, losses in soldiers lives, and deterioration of overall US strategy. The President needs to regain the initiative now at a time when members of Congress and significant portions of his own party are moving rapidly away from their commitment to the conflict.

Finally, Obama must convene a summit of NATO member countries to address the needs of Afghanistan and decide on a unified, multilateral objective. This must also be coupled with a formal request that more troops, supplies, and technical assistance be sent using European resources, not American ones. This request has been back-channeled in recent months by Obama and his team to European leaders and officials, but it has stopped short of being the defined policy of the US or as a predicate for our ongoing commitment in Afghanistan. This must change in light of what our generals have communicated about the state of the conflict, the risks, and relevant needs.

Internationalizing the war effort and executing a successful Afghan troop "surge" is the right policy for the President to follow. The stakes of failing in Afghanistan are simply too high to accept failure. But success will only be realistic if we send a signal to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda that NATO is an immovable, inexhaustible, tireless force that is willing to stay the course for years to come if necessary.

Right now, using the playbook from Iraq, insurgent groups see weakness in the European and American commitment and believe that an overstretched US military, in particular, will not be able to defeat them over time. This is fueling the current opposition and making the strategy on the ground more difficult and complex. President Obama can only forestall a failure in Afghanistan by recognizing the need to build consensus around the mission, to spread the costs widely, and to harness overwhelming force and resources. If he cannot accomplish this or has wavering commitment to it given recent assessments of the military challenges, it is time for US forces to come home