On Afghanistan, Time May Not Be on Obama's Side

When President Obama received his copy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Afghanistan assessment last month, one of the first questions posed to the White House was how long it would take Obama to decide whether he'd send additional troops into the region. "Weeks," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. The decision, he said, was "not immediate and not imminent." It's a talking point that the White House has repeated over and over since then: Obama wanted time to digest McChrystal's report and to weigh his options. A month later, Obama is still deliberating. Tomorrow he'll convene the third of five planned Afghan strategy sessions in the White House's Situation Room with top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. McChrystal, as he did last week, will participate via videoconference. A fourth meeting is planned for Friday. According to the White House, Obama's decision is still "weeks" away, but how much time does the president really have?

Over the weekend, Jim Jones, Obama's national-security adviser, pointedly told CNN's John King that time is on the president's side. "Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of failing," Jones said. That may be true, but it's the growing pressure from Congress and the public that the White House really has to worry about. The political scenario Obama faces these days is strikingly similar to the environment George W. Bush faced as he contemplated his own game-changing strategy in Iraq almost three years ago. Public anxiety over the war is increasing by the day as the casualty count rises. And, as with Iraq, the White House's deliberation is playing out against a backdrop of scary pictures of life on the ground there. August was the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the conflict began eight years ago, and during September the growing turmoil on the ground there dominated cable-TV and network newscasts. But it's not just that the national media are paying more attention. Every life lost gets front-page coverage in local newspapers. Over the weekend, as Jones hit the Sunday shows, eight American soldiers from Colorado's Fort Carson were killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan. It was, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette, the base's deadliest day since Vietnam.

As a presidential candidate, Obama often referred to Afghanistan as "the forgotten war." He wasn't talking just about strategy, though he made it clear in no uncertain terms that he believed the Bush administration had badly neglected the region. Obama openly worried that the American people didn't fully grasp the danger of what was happening in Afghanistan. It would be hard to make that argument today, and, in some ways, the awareness could potentially limit the political capital Obama will no doubt need to maintain the public's faith in his handling of the war. A recent Gallup poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed think the war is going badly, while 37 percent believe the war was a "mistake." An ABC/Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed believe the war isn't worth fighting—an almost direct flip from this past spring when Obama unveiled his initial Afghanistan strategy. Back then, 56 percent said the Afghanistan conflict was worth it. The administration's very public hand-wringing, namely the back and forth between the White House and McChrystal, likely isn't helping those numbers. Add to that the pressure from Congress. On one hand, Republicans like John McCain argue that the White House doesn't have much time to lose on Afghanistan, while Democrats like Russ Feingold are openly wondering if Obama shouldn't set a timetable for withdrawal.

One lesson from Bush's handling of Iraq is that he waited almost too long to approve a change of strategy in the region. While the troop surge was ultimately regarded as a success, Bush's approval ratings with the public never recovered, and it largely overshadowed the rest of his presidency. It's something Obama does think about. Over the summer he told a group of historians visiting him at the White House that he was worried Afghanistan could suck the oxygen out of his own presidency. There's no indication that Obama plans to run down the clock in the way Bush did on Iraq, but with every passing day the White House loses a little bit of control on the public narrative. And, in a conflict as unpredictable as Afghanistan, that's not something that's easy to reclaim.