Obama must sell Americans on escalating Afghan war

Sets case tonight for boosting force by some 30,000

By Farah Stockman and Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / December 1, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama will be under heavy pressure tonight to convince an increasingly skeptical American public, as well as worried members of his own party in Congress, that it is worth risking more American lives and billions more in costs to escalate a war that, over the past eight years, has fallen short of its original objectives.

Obama ran in 2008 on a platform of withdrawing from Iraq and “winning’’ in Afghanistan, and now, with his popularity waning and political strength on the line, he will make a detailed argument in a prime-time speech for how he intends to accomplish that elusive goal: by adding at least 30,000 troops over the next 18 months.

He also plans to explain how he will combine a massive increase in counterinsurgency efforts with a speedier effort to train and equip Afghan forces, so the government led by President Hamid Karzai can take control of the country’s security on its own, according to White House aides and diplomats who have been briefed on the speech, which will be delivered at West Point, before uniformed cadets.

Combined with the 68,000 troops there, the new US force will be twice the size it was when Obama took office. Increasing troops slowly, in phases, could give Obama greater leverage over the Afghan government to demand reforms and ask for the removal of corrupt officials.

“This is our last chance to get it right,’’ said Caroline Wadhams, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank. “If Obama isn’t able to show some progress within the next year, he will lose the vast majority of support for this mission.’’

While some key advisers to Obama, including Vice President Joe Biden, have called for a far more limited mission focusing narrowly on counterterrorism, Obama’s expected troop request signals that he has sided with his top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, who sought more troops to protect the Afghan population in a traditional counterinsurgency effort.

A Pentagon planner said yesterday that the new strategy makes the southern city of Kandahar, the traditional capital of the Taliban movement, the “center of gravity,’’ with less emphasis on far-flung outposts along the border with neighboring Pakistan.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about battle plans, said that means thousands of US troops will try to secure the territory around the city and cautiously enter the city itself to allow the Afghan government and aid groups to begin offering an alternative to the radical Taliban movement that currently controls Kandahar and a vast network of Pashtun tribes that live around it. At least one group of Marines will be in place by Christmas.

But the plan is fraught with risks, both for Obama’s political agenda in the United States and for the stability of the region. In the United States, the American public is divided on the war. A Gallup poll released last week said that 47 percent of Americans would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, by roughly 40,000 or a smaller amount, while 39 percent wanted to reduce the number.

A strong performance tonight could help Obama win broader support.

“The president really hasn’t addressed the country about the war since the spring. If you are fighting a war and taking it seriously, you actually do need to be out there talking about it, making your case, ’’ said Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Americans have a tendency to rally around the president at moments like this. Obama is going to be looking very presidential [when he gives his speech] and that will actually strengthen him on issues like health care and other domestic political issues.’’

Obama’s popularity among independents has fallen during the three months he has taken to decide what to do about the growing insurgency in Afghanistan. His fellow Democrats - mired in the overhaul of health care and increasingly anxious about the slow economic recovery - have offered either tepid support for a troop increase or outright opposition.

Richard C. Eichenberg, a political science professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said that the speech could give him some breathing room with fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“I think the American public will give Obama a chance on this one,’’ he said. “Obama is persuasive. The argument that we had to go [into Afghanistan] and we can’t just up and leave is a pretty powerful moral argument.’’

But eight years after the terrorist attacks that took down the World Trade Center, many Americans have begun to question whether the military buildup in Afghanistan has made the United States safer from terrorism. Capturing and dismantling Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, was an initial objective of the war. But the senior leaders of the group, believed to number fewer than 100, continue to hide in the lawless border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where US military strikes against them have radicalized the population.

A key goal of Obama’s speech is to remind the public of the need to combat terrorist plots emanating from the region, according to a diplomat from a NATO ally with troops in Afghanistan who said the administration worked closely to coordinate its message. A second goal, he said, is to emphasize that security will be handed over to Afghans as soon as possible. Karzai has said his forces could take responsibility for security in five years.

Yesterday, in a speech that foreshadowed Obama’s, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain spoke of a plan for “transfer of lead security responsibility to the Afghans - district by district, province by province - with the first districts and provinces potentially being handed over during next year.’’

Brown recently announced an increase of 500 more British troops, to a total of 10,000, but emphasized that NATO troops would leave as soon as Afghans could take charge. But he acknowledged that success is not guaranteed. In the coming days, NATO members are expected to announce increases of 4,000 to 6,000 additional troops, on top of the 42,000 they have in place.

Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report.