Sunday, October 25, 2009

As American public opinion remains roughly split over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the ongoing White House debate over strategy has created a political vacuum strengthening the hand of Afghan-skeptics.

The public perception of a vacillating president stuck in political limbo will only fuel the gradual erosion of popular support for American troops on the ground. Although still reversible, this process will only accelerate in the absence of firm executive leadership.

Along with an actual physical surge with more troops and resources, public confidence can only be restored through the launch of a comprehensive rhetorical surge clearly outlining the mission in compelling and convincing terms. More than ever, President Obama must take a clear and determined stand on Afghanistan. The president must present a vision that promotes and sustains the mission’s unity and continuity of purpose.

The sense of aimlessness dominating the status quo has an eroding impact on the overall mission and morale. There is a growing perception among many of the 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan - not to mention the 32,000 allied forces who seek and rely upon U.S. leadership - of a disengaged commander in chief gone AWOL.

In addition, this further weakens European leaders already disadvantaged in a losing battle for public opinion on Afghanistan and reluctant to invest any more political capital. Many ordinary Afghans sit on the fence doubting whether America and its allies have the staying power to confront the insurgents.

Ultimately, without the participation, assistance and cooperation of ordinary Afghans, the international mission is doomed to failure. All this underscores the need for greater presidential leadership from Mr. Obama on Afghanistan.

Despite the president’s promise of a troop increase, the exact amount remains mired in a debate reduced to a numbers game and subject to negotiations and political expediency.

Although many policy issues require some form of compromise, there is no room for compromise on fundamentally critical matters of national security and international stability such as Afghanistan. For eight years, the conflict has been fought on the cheap through half-measures that have denied the necessary resources, both human and materiel.

To continue doing so will only accelerate decline and eventual defeat. Even though it will take months before any new troops are deployed, the battle for public opinion remains central in the current conflict and essential to any long-term gains. Declaring a substantial increase in troops and resources will reinforce U.S. credibility and reinvigorate its commitment.

In late 2008, Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team began a long debate on Afghanistan, pitting minimalists, led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and calling for limited engagement, against maximalists emphasizing a full-scale effort. The maximalist camp eventually prevailed and culminated in Mr. Obama’s forceful March 27 speech.

To reflect his new approach, Mr. Obama dismissed Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was heading U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, and appointed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal for his reputation and achievements in counterinsurgency.

However, since then, a piecemeal approach has largely prevailed in substance and rhetoric. In a nationally televised interview, Gen. McChrystal admitted to having spoken only once to the president in his first 60 days in Afghanistan. Since then regular communication has resumed.

After the completion of Gen. McChrystal’s proposal in late summer, the minimalist-maximalist debate once again resurfaced, resulting in policy gridlock. The troubled presidential election process furthered complicated the situation.

For many policymakers stuck in Cold War mode and scarred by the Vietnam experience as their focal point of reference, defeat in Afghanistan looms large in every corner.

The lingering doomsday scenarios of failure contribute to greater skepticism and paralysis in decision-making. It is crucial not to underestimate the challenges that lie ahead in Afghanistan and bear in mind history and past experiences.

However, it is just as important to move beyond and not remain a prisoner of the past. Ultimately, American credibility and leadership is at stake.

After the endless rounds of debate, the Obama administration will have no other option but to follow the bulk of Gen. McChrystal’s proposals. At this point, it is the only realistic way forward. Any alternative half-measures will only prolong the status quo resulting in eventual decline and failure.

After eight years, it is time to implement a comprehensive and concerted effort. The leadership on the ground is in place. The additional forces and resources must be delivered. The president’s extensive deliberations are undoubtedly intended to secure the national interest. However, the time has come to end debate and take action.

Marco Vicenzino is the director of the Global Strategy Project, a nonprofit organization inaugurated by former Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.

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