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Washington Matters

Afghan Surge: Promise
And Peril for Obama

Richard Sammon

Obama's fate hinges on the war's outcome, not the fight in Congress

While there’ll be much debate in coming weeks over the merits of the Afghanistan strategy President Obama outlined Tuesday night, the president is likely to get the congressional blessing he needs to quickly ramp up and then ramp down military involvement over the next 18 months.

Despite vigorous arguments over the merits of deploying 30,000 more troops in a war that is unpopular with the public and many Democratic lawmakers, Congress will get on board in the end. It takes a lot of political will to defy a president of one’s own party on a military matter. Figure on House and Senate leaders insisting -- and the White House agreeing -- on detailed progress reports over the coming months, but there will be no attempt to interfere with the battlefield strategy.

Efforts by war opponents to cut funding will be impassioned and reflect the desire of millions of Americans opposed to a costly and dangerous ongoing commitment in Afghanistan, but they’re bound to fall short, with most Republicans and many Democrats ultimately backing the plan. Efforts to institute a broad-based war tax to finance the operation will also fall short. There’s little chance of a tax hike as the economy still struggles to find better footing.

But securing funding is a small first step. Odds of everything going well and quickly are low. Military operations of this size rarely go exactly according to plan, and some setbacks should be expected. The geographical mountainous terrain is treacherous. There are long standing disputes, and cultural differences between rural areas and population centers can’t be turned around overnight. The ability of the government of President Hamid Karzai to be a strong partner and to eliminate serious corruption will be a constant question mark. The number of NATO troops that will be included in the surge (and whether they will participate in the tough combat roles) won’t be clear for months. Also unknown is how committed Pakistan will be in routing out al Qaeda elements along its border with Afghanistan and whether al Qaeda operations simply move to other areas, such as Somalia or Yemen, further complicating matters.


And what if Taliban insurgents cease fighting, figuring they’ll wait for the U.S. to leave and then rejoin their years-long insurgency? Would that be a short-term victory for Obama but a long-term defeat for his foreign policy and national security plan?

While total victory is out of the question, Obama is banking on being able to show real signs of progress within a reasonable period of time, hoping to point in time to several provinces and population centers that have been freed of insurgents, for instance, or sealing agreements in rural areas to destroy opium poppy fields or showing more high level al Qaeda chiefs killed.

Long term, though, he is staking much on eventual outcome of a complicated war effort that now has his signature on it. A troubled engagement marked by high casualties, an inability to turn back Taliban insurgents and a hasty withdrawal that is perceived as well short of victory would become a political nightmare for Obama, jeopardizing his reelection, even in the event of a much better domestic economy.

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