President Obama set to hike troops in Afghanistan, risking political fallout and recalling Vietnam
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is set to reach 100,000. (Photo: AP)
After months of keeping Americans on edge over his Afghan war strategy, President Barack Obama is set to deliver the somber news tonight of a significant troop buildup.
The yearlong escalation of between 30,000 and 35,000 troops would put the total number of U.S. forces in the country at about 100,000 and cost $75 billion annually. Obama yesterday launched an aggressive international effort to enlist support for his strategy, reaching out to allies a day after giving the official order for the buildup.
His approach, which could include exit scenarios, has engendered fierce debate about whether escalation is the best approach to stabilize the region, or simply a deeper commitment to an unwinnable war.
As the ghosts of Vietnam haunt Obama’s thinking, political experts spoke with amNewYork about how his approach could play out.
What are we getting into, and how is this different from the earlier strategy?
By pulling out of Iraq and concentrating on Afghanistan, Obama is seen as finishing what former President George W. Bush began. “It’s as if they’ve been fighting eight one-year wars in Afghanistan rather than in one eight-year war,” said Kim Barker, a Council on Foreign Relations expert, quoting a military official. “There was no direction or coordination.” In contrast, Obama reportedly is setting concrete goals and benchmarks. He may even announce a time frame for an exit, which experts say poses a political risk.
Is Obama in danger of becoming an unpopular wartime president?
“What we’ve seen with other presidents is the more you get bogged down by war, the more that becomes how Americans and fellow politicians define your presidency,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He cited former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Bush as examples. Obama must quickly establish civil stability and get U.S. troops out within the year — a difficult task, Zelizer said.
Does the president’s challenge in Afghanistan mirror Johnson’s troubles in Vietnam?
Johnson, like Obama, faced divisions in the White House and Congress on whether to escalate the war, and both wars are incredibly messy with no clear-cut enemy, Zelizer said. Obama, however, has Vietnam to learn from. “The memories and the fears of Vietnam, they’re shaping the debate over Afghanistan,” Zelizer said.
How must Obama sell the war to Congress and Americans to win their backing?
The president must stress that Afghanistan is a war that he inherited and terrorism must be fought “where it germinates,” said Julius Hobson, a defense lobbying expert and senior policy adviser at Bryan Cave LLP.
What strategy must he pursue along with the troop increase to stabilize the region?
Michael Semple, an expert on the Taliban and a former EU official, advocates “flipping the Taliban,” or working with insurgents on a diplomatic level and including them in the nation-building process. “This is not one of those wars [Obama is] just going to be able to shoot his way out of,” Semple said. “He will need to push a political front. ... The Army won’t be winning this by reducing Afghanistan to rubble.”
What would happen if we immediately pulled out all the troops?
A civil war would break out, Semple said. “It would be the worst of all possible worsts: A significant burst in morale for a whole range of militants who are fighting in Pakistan,” he said of neighboring insurgents. “Anybody who allied themselves with the international community would be left fighting for their lives.”
How do Afghans feel about the prospect of more U.S. soldiers in the region?
In her recent travels to Kabul, Barker found ambivalence. “A lot of people are very afraid that an increase of the number of troops will be a propaganda boon for the Taliban [and bring] more civilian casualties,” Barker said. “Other Afghans you talk to say, ‘Look, get it done, get the Afghan army trained up and get out.’”