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Obama on Tricky Ground with Afghan Strategy


WASHINGTON – Barack Obama built his career on opposing the Iraq war but now, as president, is poised for a politically perilous effort to pitch the United States deeper into another conflict, in Afghanistan.

Beset by the worst economic crisis in generations and rising diplomatic challenges, Obama is set within days to unveil an overhaul of strategy for a war that has no end in sight after seven years.

Expected plans to boost civilian aid to Afghanistan, woo moderate insurgents and expand the Afghan army will likely attract strong political support.

But the question of sending more troops to war is more controversial and the public’s long-term backing may depend on Obama making the sale.

“I am not opposed to all wars, I’m opposed to dumb wars,” Obama said in his famous 2002 speech against the looming Iraq war.

To convince all Americans that the Afghan conflict is a smart war, he must make the case that the conflict remains vital to US security and establish clear combat goals.

Americans are weary of the six-year war in Iraq, and Obama’s campaign vow to bring troops home was a significant factor in his defeat of Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and Republican foe John McCain last year.

Polls show Obama’s current popularity gives him the leverage to increase US involvement in Afghanistan, but reveal that support for the war may be soft and prone to erosion if the new strategy fails.

Sixty-three percent of those questioned last month in a CNN/Opinion Research poll supported sending more troops to Afghanistan.

But only 47 percent supported the war and 51 percent were against.

In a USA Today/Gallup poll, this month, 42 percent said it had been a mistake to send US forces to Afghanistan to chase Al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the September 11 attacks in 2001, up from 30 percent a month ago.

A Quinnipiac University poll found significant support — 62-31 percent for Obama’s recent decision to sign off on a 17,000 troop increase in Afghanistan, but the idea of sending 13,000 more only drew 47 to 43 percent support.

“It is reasonable to say that support for an increased build up for Afghanistan is soft,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac polling institute.

Pollsters say Obama’s personal popularity may be inflating backing for his Afghan strategy, and support for the war may flag should the president’s approval ratings diminish.

Those most opposed to escalating the war are black, women and low income voters—part of the core coalition wooed by Obama’s vow to end the Iraq war.

Heightened combat in Afghanistan will likely mean more US deaths, which would also further dampen support for the war.

“The larger the number of casualties, the more skeptical people will be about the effort there, that is what history tells us,” said Brown.

Some supporters fear Obama is plunging into a quagmire which will shackle the promise of his presidency, as Vietnam did for Lyndon Johnson and Iraq did for George W. Bush.

Robert Greenwald, a filmmaker and co-creator of an anti-war campaign dubbed “Get Afghanistan Right,” said Obama must heed those who helped elect him and now oppose escalating the war.

“We must rethink the Afghan campaign because of all of these critical questions that could totally undermine all of the incredible things that Obama is trying to do,” he said.

Greenwald wants congressional hearings on war policy, a rethink of escalation plans and a halt to US drone strikes in Pakistan insurgent regions.

He argued that the biggest recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan is the presence of foreign troops in the country, and called for a huge increase in civilian aid to Afghanistan.

“Let’s send in 17,000 doctors, 17,000 teachers,” he said.

The anti-war movement is still germinating but its pioneers hope to build anti-war sentiment in Congress which has budgetary sway over policy.

Currently support seems strong among lawmakers for Obama’s war plans, including among Democrats who argued Bush disastrously ignored the Afghan conflict for an “unnecessary” war in Iraq.

But a rise in combat deaths would pressure vulnerable lawmakers ahead of 2010 elections.

A bipartisan group of 15 congressmen last week called on Obama not to deploy more soldiers without first outlining an exit strategy.

“Sending 17,000 troops over there and continuing the drone bombing of Pakistan is hardly a change in policy,” said Republican Ron Paul.