If there's one thing that the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll tells us, it's that when the President outlines a good policy and speaks directly to the American people about it, he can connect. So, it's not a surprise that after a summer where the President was pretty quiet on health care, September has seen his numbers on that issue begin to turn around. Yet, as casualties increase in Afghanistan, while the country teeters on the brink, public opinion has swung clearly against the war in the region, as the President has spent most of his time talking about domestic priorities.
The administration continues to say, and I continue to believe, that Afghanistan/Pakistan is not a war of choice. But, how we continue to wage it is a series of choices. And, on these choices, the President must make some relatively quick decisions, and make his case to the American people.
So, what are those questions that the President needs to answer, and take to the American people?
1) What is the military objective in Afghanistan? The first order of business is to define who we're fighting exactly? Is it al Qaeda, as the President said before, or has the lack of cooperation from elements of the Taliban made them the enemy too? There is, of course, the argument that the Taliban retaking the country could mean a safe haven for al Qaeda.
The second thing to decide is what is the mission? If the mission is counter-terrorism, then it means a much smaller military footprint, and a greater reliance on high-tech weaponry, and a lower focus on securing the population. That might not actually need more troops to be achieved, but actually reduce the number of NATO and American troops serving there. If the President wants a stronger counter-insurgency operation, however, it means more focus on securing the population and using that as leverage with local leaders to not support the Taliban. That does take more troops.
Also a few Democrats in Congress are now only supporting an increase of troops in advisory/training roles. Without an increase in combat forces, there can be no real counter-insurgency operation, and no real ability to secure areas. No increase in the amount of trainers will have the Afghan military operational enough in time to fight back the Taliban. So sending guys over in a pure training role will actually increase the risk to embedded trainers.
One final wrinkle is whether there has been any improvement to the complete breakdown in inter-agency coordination since the previous administration. If there's not - if the CIA, military, and state department are all working independently, any serious counter-insurgency strategy cannot work, and certainly not on the backs of our military.
2) How has the Taliban and al Qaeda evolved since 9/11? The second assessment the President has to make is who or what, exactly, is al Qaeda, and how do we fight them? Since 9/11, worldwide, al Qaeda is much more a name attached to ideology, than a group. How much is al Qaeda operating in the region, versus those attached to the ideology. It may be very small, but they also wield a lot of power, still. Also, they're no longer based mainly in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan.
3) Is training the Afghan Army the most important part of any plan? This was the main thrust of what the Bush administration tried to do for years. There are problems here and it will be more challenging than Iraq. There has been no central army in Afghan since the 70's. There is no strong central government today. And, the government can't pay the troops without our financial help. So are we willing to not just train, but pay Afghan forces? Unlike Iraq, Afghanis are not as well educated, nor as physically healthy - making building an Afghan Army a million times more difficult than training an Iraqi Army (and we know how hard that was). We have made some strides, but slow ones. The President has to decide and explain if a stable Afghan force is a realistic end-state without a very, very long commitment. If this becomes the central part of the American exit strategy it sound eerily similar the George W. Bush, " When they stand up, we will stand down" Iraq strategy.
4) Is there enough support in the US to sustain a counter-insurgency strategy? Although 50 percent of Americans are against sending more troops, the White House has been focused on health care and energy and has not rallied public support for operations in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Public support is needed to sustain operations. We've already seen opinion shift in Congress, mirroring the polls. The President must make his case and then decide if public opinion will hold long enough see this through.
5) What to do about poppies? This is little talked about, but very important. The growth of poppies is really an economic staple for many. Should we destroy the poppies? Yes they fuel the insurgency. But it hurts us more if we destroy them and their value to the farmer cannot be fully replaced. This is very hard to achieve unless you can provide security in the region. But, as long as Afghanis feel that we're hurting their ability to make money, we only create more potential enemies for al Qaeda and others to recruit.
6) How popular are NATO Forces in Afghanistan? The most important question. Any strategy needs support. Indications are that NATO forces are much more popular in Afghanistan than we ever were in Iraq, and NATO troops enjoy more support with Afghanis then they do in current US polls. That seems to be more of the case where we've secured the area - Afghanis who feel we're making them safe see us better. However, this needs to be absolutely clear and quantified.
7) How popular are the Taliban? The flip-side of the most important argument. We need a solid assessment of the support the Taliban has, and why. Before deciding on a mission, and how many more troops to send or not send, we need an honest assessment of whether the Taliban are gaining some popularity as a counter-weight to Karzai. In some areas, especially in the south, they are seeing some gains in support, which they can parlay into having a real base to operate out of as they try to retake the country. That, as much as anything, will largely determine what we can and can't achieve.
8) Is this still the central front on the war on terror? In 2001, and years after, it clearly was. And it still very much is an important area. But is terror really contained to the AfPak area, or, has that become more of a piece of a larger puzzle that includes many African nations and others in the Middle East? If it has, then that's a pretty strong argument against more troops for Afghanistan, because you may need them for counter-terror operations elsewhere.
The President needs to adopt some urgency in answering these questions, and pushing his strategy. Not just because our troops and commanders on the ground need a clear mission, but because the ability to implement this plan, and get what he needs out of Congress to make it happen very much relies on where public opinion is. This doesn't mean that there shouldn't be internal debate and discussion within the White House from all sides, but that can't be allowed to drag on too long.
In the end, this all rests in the President's hands. If there's another lesson he can take from the health care debate, it is that it's never too soon to take control by making some decisions and using the Bully Pulpit to personally make his case.
Crossposted at VetVoice.com