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Obama Faces Perilous Political Path On Afghanistan

Obama Faces Perilous Political Path On Afghanistan

By Scott Conroy - December 16, 2010

President Obama on Thursday cited "significant progress" in Afghanistan, but the administration's own annual review of the situation on the ground in the nearly decade-long conflict indicates a perilous road ahead on an issue that has already become a defining facet of his presidency and could add to his political vulnerability as the 2012 presidential campaign kicks into high gear.

"This continues to be a very difficult endeavor," Obama told reporters at the White House on Thursday. "But I can report that thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians on the ground, we are on track to achieve our goals."

Obama again made clear that his aim in the continued commitment to Afghanistan was to dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in the region, not to engage in the kind of nation-building that was a focal point of Bush administration foreign policy.

But as other reports have demonstrated slow progress in the region and questions remain over an array of concerns, including the reliability of Pakistan and the Afghan government, the political risks remain extensive in continuing to mount a war that Obama took full ownership of when he increased the U.S. troop presence last year.

"On this politically, I'm not commenting substantively, Barack Obama wants to do no harm," Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian and political history professor at American University, told RealClearPolitics. "He doesn't want Afghanistan to be an issue one way or the other. He wants the war to be drawn down enough - American casualties to be reduced - so it's just not something on the minds of voters."

Lichtman cited Richard Nixon's successful 1972 reelection campaign, which came as he was winding down the Vietnam War, as a model for which Obama could hope to replicate but also warned that modern American political history demonstrated the potential pitfalls the president faces.

"These modern wars are generally not good for the party that wages them," Lichtman said. "If you look at the history from Korea onward, it's not very positive for sitting presidents or the party holding the White House. His best case scenario is to defuse it as an issue and not have his base angry and not give the Republicans an opening."

Most of the recent discourse on the political repercussions that Obama might face over Afghanistan have centered around the possibility that the president could inspire a primary challenge from the left, which might be fueled by antiwar fervor. But while conceivable, the prospect of any Democratic opponent mounting a credible campaign against Obama remains unlikely.

More plausible, and potentially more politically concerning to the administration, is the prospect that mounting American casualties and uncertain indicators of progress in the war will turn the issue into a political albatross for Obama that a Republican opponent might be able to exploit.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Thursday showed that 60 percent of Americans now view the war in Afghanistan as "not worth fighting" - a seven percent increase since the question was last asked in July and a new level of public dissatisfaction on par with the skeptical views of the Iraq War during much of President George W. Bush's second term.

The Obama administration has continued to deemphasize the July of 2011 date that it set for the beginning of troop withdrawals and has talked up the 2014 date set for the end of combat operations, in what has widely been seen as an implicit acknowledgment that progress in training Afghan forces has not gone as smoothly or rapidly as hoped.

Despite the clear progress on the battlefield that the annual review demonstrated, the sustainability of those military gains remains in question, and the sanctuaries that al Qaeda operatives have found in Pakistan continuue to be a critical and difficult challenge.

"If things begin to slide backward, God forbid, I think there will be questions about whether we have pursued the correct policy toward Pakistan and what has been contributing to our inability to stabilize Afghanistan," said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Aside from advocating a new course on the bilateral relationship with Pakistan, the future Republican presidential nominee might make an issue out of the president's decision to set timelines for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

"I think it's very unhelpful to try to fight a war with deadlines, so I think that's one difference [between the two political parties]," Curtis said. "The Republican leadership has been very clear that you cannot win a war when you tell your enemy when you're going to leave, and that's particularly true in this case."

In an appearance with other top administration officials at the White House on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed the significance of the latest poll numbers.

"I'm well aware of the popular concern and I understand it," Clinton said. "But I don't think leaders, and certainly this president, will not make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling."

Still, Clinton repeatedly referred to what she called "the context we inherited two years ago" in citing progress and touted the creation of a coherent strategy and clearly defined mission in Afghanistan that she said did not exist under the Bush administration.

"When we came into office, the Pakistanis had agreed to an ill-conceived peace agreement with the Pakistani Taliban that was consistently and persistently expanding their territorial reach," she said before pointing to Pakistan's decision to reassign troops who were on the Indian boarder and the steps it has taken to combat terrorists hiding within its borders.

But the earnestness of Pakistan's commitment to fighting al Qaeda remains an open question to many experts, and as long as U.S. troops are still in harm's way in the region, the Obama administration's diplomatic track with Islamabad and relationship with the Afghan government appears susceptible to being challenged in 2012.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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