August 2011 was the deadliest month yet for America in almost 10 years of war in Afghanistan. A record 66 U.S. troops have died with one day to go in the month, and an additional 14 coalition troops from other countries have made the supreme sacrifice. U.S. deaths reached record levels in part because of the 30 servicemen killed in a tragic helicopter crash on Aug. 6. American military deaths in Afghanistan are on track to come in slightly below the record 499 in 2010. Headlines about record casualties don’t help maintain public support for the war, which already is low, in the 30 percent range. With the 2012 election looming, a story line has taken shape designed to insulate President Obama from any hint of failure in Afghanistan.
The narrative goes like this: After successfully toppling the Taliban regime, the George W. Bush administration failed to prevent Osama bin Laden from escaping from Tora Bora to Pakistan. Then the Bush team prematurely decided to shift resources to prepare for the coming war with Iraq before Afghanistan had been stabilized. Neglecting Afghanistan in favor of Iraq gave the Taliban time to rebuild, which has led to the current problems in that country. And for that matter, the Bush administration’s wars are the principal cause of America’s current record budget deficits.
The administration’s spin that the wars are responsible for record budget deficits does not bear close scrutiny. According to the Center for Defense Information, the 10-year costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be $1.29 trillion by the end of fiscal 2011. That is a lot of money, but it is only slightly more than the single-year deficits the country has suffered under Mr. Obama. The White House “stimulus” program alone was 15 times the 2009 cost of the Afghan war.
The notion that victory in Afghanistan was squandered in Iraq was a staple of the 2008 election. This line allowed Democratic candidates to criticize the Bush administration’s “war of choice” in Iraq while giving them an opportunity to sound hawkish about the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. Only a few years previously, however, Democrats had been saying Operation Enduring Freedom was wrapped up. In 2005, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi argued that the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed because “The war in Afghanistan is over.” She had a good case; casualties were low, a government had been elected, and the Afghan people loved America. It looked like mission accomplished.
Six years later, public opinion has sagged, the government of President Hamid Karzai is under pressure, U.S. combat fatalities are five times higher, and Washington is seeking a deal with the Taliban. The increase in casualties tracks with a dramatic troop buildup since Mr. Obama took office. In January 2009, there were 34,000 troops in-country, which swelled to 68,000 even before the “Afghan surge” was announced in December 2009. That effort is being dismantled, but even with 33,000 troops scheduled to be withdrawn before the presidential election, there still will be double the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan that there were when Mr. Obama was inaugurated.
President Obama owns this war, and whether America succeeds in Afghanistan rests on his shoulders.