How Obama's Promises on Afghanistan Could Hurt Him

Barack Obama is leading the polls at home, but he's downright beloved abroad, where he's seen as a Kennedyesque star who could quickly heal the damage America's done to its image with Iraq, Guantánamo, and other missteps.

It's no small irony, then, that the foreign-policy issue Obama has emphasized most of late is Afghanistan. Arguing that it, not Iraq, is the real central front in the war on terror, Obama has promised to send in about 10,000 more troops and to strike next-door Pakistan, if top terrorists are spotted there. Yet should President Obama really follow through on such aggressive promises, Afghanistan could become an Iraq of his own—a quagmire that alienates allies and his key political base.

Consider: 40 nations now have troops in Afghanistan, but besides the United States, only Britain, Canada and a few others are seeing action, and most of those have threatened to pull out unless other NATO members carry their weight. But a U.S. troop surge would inevitably mean more casualties—making it even less likely queasy allies would risk their own. Strategist Walter Russell Mead says a U.S. surge would "definitely lead to political problems with Europe, where support for the war is ebbing." In France, two thirds of the population already wants their (nonfighting) troops brought home.

Then there's the U.S. public. Pollster Craig Charney says the war in Afghanistan has always been more popular than the one in Iraq because Afghanistan was the base for the 9/11 attackers. But that popular support could falter if the body count rises dramatically. And this summer, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan surpassed those in Iraq for the first time—an ominous sign.

The war will become especially unpopular if America seems to be losing. Despite public perception, Afghanistan is actually a much tougher target than Iraq. It's long been a graveyard for mighty foreign armies, from the British to the Soviets, and a growing number of experts now argue that simply sending more Americans with guns won't help much. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that while a greater commitment may be the least bad option, it could provoke "a nationalist backlash," further undermining the shaky government of President Hamid Karzai. Yet Mead cautions that "the more the candidates use heavy rhetoric," the more they risk doing just that: "locking themselves into what could be an unwinnable engagement." Better, many experts agree, to take a more nuanced approach, perhaps striking a deal with the Taliban (as Karzai has proposed) or warlords and working with Pakistan to seal its border. That may not sound sexy. But should Obama keep talking tough on the trail without discussing these other, messier options, he could end up as president commited to sending more and more young Americans to fight and die in a futile and increasingly unpopular foreign war. Sound familiar?

With Tracy McNicoll