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A Call for Clarity on Afghanistan

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As casualties mount in Afghanistan, pundits and bloggers eagerly await Obama's decision on US policy toward that conflict. The American public is growing wary of the war, with Democratic lawmakers and activists calling for reduced troop levels. Yet, many commentators emphasize the risks of a withdrawal, while Republicans are preparing their inevitable smear campaign. Beneath the debates about troop levels, though, is a division between two broad approaches to the war; whether it will be a narrow counter-terrorism campaign or a comprehensive counterinsurgency (COIN). This distinction--and the risks accompanying each approach--has rarely been addressed by Obama himself; indeed, he often seems to obfuscate the differences in his rhetoric. Whatever the President decides, he must rhetorically prepare the public for the costs of his Afghanistan strategy, a feat that cannot be accomplished until he clearly differentiates the two approaches to this war.

Discussion of the different choices Obama faces often focuses on troop levels. A dramatic troop increase will satisfy proponents of continued engagement and address Republican attacks on Obama's supposed weakness. Likewise, a troop reduction will cheer the left and those concerned about whether America should continue to risk our troops' lives for a conflict that may not be winnable. And a more likely compromise position--with a moderate troop increase--will satisfy no one but may avoid serious political fights. Yet, it is not the number of troops alone but the broader strategy in which troop levels are embedded that is the crucial factor. The "surge" in Iraq was not merely more troops, it was also a shift to a COIN-focused strategy that emphasized protecting civilians and stabilizing population centers. It is this broader strategy that will determine the outcome of this war, and should therefore be the focus of both public debates and official statements.

Unfortunately, Obama's discussion of Afghanistan has not made this strategy clear. During Obama's Sunday talk show blitz in September, a few questions on Afghanistan made it through the inevitable health care debate. When pressed, Obama claimed we are not trying to build a nation; instead, US policy is focused on destroying al-Qaeda (AQ). A similar sentiment was made by Secretary of State Clinton in a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos. That is, our strategy in Afghanistan is counter-terrorism, rather than COIN. Indeed, this rhetoric has been present in Obama's speeches since the beginning of his Administration, arising during the Presidential campaign and continuing through the strategy for Afghanistan Obama released in March.

This counter-terrorism approach makes sense from a political perspective. Bush's foreign policy was criticized for being idealistic and overambitious. Another prevalent critique claimed the true front of the war on terror was Afghanistan, not Iraq; Bush's focus on the latter, then, ultimately distracted America from defeating AQ. Obama attempted to distinguish himself from his predecessor by acting on both of these critiques; he presented a more realistic counter-terrorism approach, while increasing attention on Afghanistan.

This would be fine if Obama were either adopting a scaled-back counter-terrorism effort or correcting for Bush's errors with a comprehensive COIN strategy. Instead, his actions contradict his rhetoric. While Obama has discussed the merits of counter-terrorism, the policies he has adopted have emphasized COIN, including both the appointment of General McChrystal to command operations in Afghanistan and the details of his March strategy. Although some in the Administration--particularly Vice President Biden--are arguing for a scaled-back approach, Obama will most likely follow COIN dictates even if he does not increase troop levels.

This tension, though--between his public discussion of counter-terrorism and policies leaning towards COIN--may prove fatal. Obama is not preparing the American people for the sacrifices and difficulties that are inevitable in any attempt to stabilize a conflict-ridden country. Also, he will inevitably face charges of an unrealistic "nation-building" endeavor. If he has laid out a well-formulated COIN strategy--focused on stabilizing the country rather than producing a Jeffersonian democracy--Obama can appeal to this strategy to counter charges of poor planning and hubris. By publicly emphasizing counter-terrorism, though, Obama is cutting himself off from this useful rhetorical tool.

Ultimately, any policy will be a tough sell. The American people are hesitant to accept a long-term commitment in Afghanistan. And Obama may be unwilling to stake scarce political capital on an unpopular policy. The tension and ambiguity in his statements, however, will only complicate his job, limiting his ability to guide public debate and failing to prepare Americans for the depths of the struggle we will face in securing Afghanistan. Obama's admirable emphasis on formulating an effective strategy should thus be accompanied by rhetorical clarity on the nature of this strategy; only then can an informed public debate take place on what may prove to be the most important decision of Obama's Presidency.