Where is Obama’s public support for Afghanistan?

Despite the fact that Afghanistan is slowly making its way to success, many Americans believe the war is unwinnable – and most want out. Perhaps many of them suspect that the president of the United States shares their view. He has done little to disabuse them of the notion.

General disaffection with war is common, particularly with one as drawn out as the almost decade-long battle to secure Afghanistan. But the outlook in Afghanistan has improved: Afghans or allies control large swaths of territory, and while President Hamid Karzai has proved that he lacks certain Jeffersonian qualities, he is certainly no worse than many U.S. allies in terms of governance, reliability and general fealty to his American friends.

Nonetheless, fewer and fewer Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. Polling in December and January found public support for the war consistently below 50 percent, and surveys have frequently shown that almost 60 percent of respondents believe we should not be there. Indeed, in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, levels of dissatisfaction for the first time equaled those for the Iraq war at its nadir.

In many ways, the public’s unhappiness is mysterious. It’s not rooted in politics: Barack Obama campaigned on the argument that Afghanistan – and not Iraq – was the war that had to be won. As president, Obama has sent more troops to battle against Islamist extremists and has resisted calls to give up. On the other side of the political spectrum, Republicans outnumber Democrats in believing the war is worth fighting – by 2 to 1 in some polls. But even among GOP stalwarts, support is declining precipitously.

It could be that the war is not well understood: Certainly the Afghanistan conflict is not much in the news, particularly compared with the Iraq war. The Pew Research Center notes that media coverage of Afghanistan in 2010 – the year we instituted the troop surge and began to fight in earnest (with accordingly higher casualties) – rarely ticked above 5 percent of all U.S. news stories, with only two spikes to 20 percent in the year. Contrast that with 2007, the year of the surge in Iraq: Pew reported that Iraq was the “dominant story” from January, when the surge was announced, to May. Coverage of the topic dropped after that – but remained at 10 percent of news stories for the year.

Or it could be that the American public is weary of the long fight or the expense of the war at a time of national hardship, though historically the latter has not deterred the American people.

All are possible factors, but here is a certain one: President Obama has done very little to support the war. As commander in chief he has prosecuted the conflict in Afghanistan seriously, with commitment and with deliberation. He has been less than effective, however, with the bully pulpit that belongs to the nation’s leader.

Since taking office, Obama has remained true to his 2008 campaign pledge that his “first order as commander in chief will be to end the war in Iraq and refocus our efforts on Afghanistan.” After a lengthy review in 2009, the president ordered a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. He set a deadline of July 31, 2011, to begin drawing down the troops – distressing Afghans, Pakistanis, allies worldwide and many in the United States – but even that deadline fell by the wayside at last year’s NATO summit in Lisbon.

To be fair, the president has reportedly rejected recommendations by the vice president, his national security adviser and countless others to surge fewer troops, move to a counterterrorism strategy or make a negotiated peace with the Taliban – all wrong moves.

Publicly, however, Obama has been remarkably quiet about the war. This week’s State of the Union address had only a passing reference to Afghanistan. Obama has given fewer than a dozen significant speeches focused on national security and only one major speech on Afghanistan. In contrast, George W. Bush gave more than 30 such speeches in his last two years in office.

Nor has the progress of the war, the mission of our troops, the various battlegrounds or other details of what candidate Obama called “the central front” been part of the rhetoric of his everyday leadership.

It is not merely that the president has stayed quiet on war talk. He has also silenced his commanders in Afghanistan, in particular forbidding Gen. David Petraeus to report at home on the campaign. And it was Petraeus, of course, who effectively outlined the strategy to the American people and realized Bush’s decision to surge in Iraq.

Clearly, the president is a reluctant warrior. The root of that reluctance – fear of agitating his left-wing base; concerns about shaping his legacy; lack of interest in national security policy? – is immaterial. The president of the United States owes it to the nation to explain what is at stake, why we fight and what more must be done – and to do so often, with all the power of his office. The commander in chief and the president must lead as one.

It may be that at the end of such an effort, the American people will reject his case. But they will at least have heard it and better understand why our troops are risking their lives and what is at stake.

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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