Rough Seas Ahead

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 14, 2010

But as troops moved on to attempt the same process in Kandahar, this success proved illusory. Kandahar has been a bloody stalemate — and Taliban forces have reportedly returned to Marjah.

When Obama authorized the troop surge and aggressive counterinsurgency, he knew that there would be rough times ahead — and remember, we are still just ramping up. By August, the US will have over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Obama clearly believes that this strategy, if we stick to it, will result in a secure and self-governing country from which we can begin withdrawing troops a year from now, without triggering complete chaos and collapse.

But even if he's right — a questionable assumption — he needs Americans and our allies to stick with the plan through these rough times. That was a lot easier when the war was off the front pages, as it had been earlier this year — when few people had any idea what was happening in Marjah and Kandahar, or whether the Karzai government is proving capable or inept.

That was before General Stanley McChrystal's inopportune comments to a Rolling Stone reporter put Afghanistan back onto the headlines in mid-June. The increased coverage should continue in the coming months, as General David Petraeus takes over the effort, and the surge reaches its full effect.

Public support for the Afghanistan effort is declining; a new Harris Poll study warns that, with this war now in the spotlight, Americans are beginning to develop "the same negative feelings they once felt towards Iraq." Greater resistance back home, from the public and Congress, increases the perception in Afghanistan that the US will soon lose the will to stay. That, some analysts argue, will make it harder to win the vital cooperation of Afghani citizens and the Karzai government. Obama and the American people are at cross-purposes; if Obama can't get them behind him, he will forfeit the already slim odds of salvaging success there.

Below the surface
Both the recession and the wars are problems that Americans rightly blame on the Bush administration, yet expect action on from the current president. But what about the catastrophic destruction of the Gulf of Mexico and our southern shores, which began with the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig?

Polls suggest that Americans similarly do not lay the blame for the problem on Obama — with BP helpfully making itself an easy foil.

And, as with the economy and the wars, the sense of the problem's enormity has led people to expect a long-term effort — polling suggests that most people believe that, even if all goes well, we'll be cleaning up this mess for many months, or years.

That should give Obama some time to get it right — and it does seem that the oil spill has not harmed his approval ratings much, despite widespread disappointment in his response so far.

But this is a problem that will garner constant attention, and the public will be quicker to hold Obama responsible for each setback.

Plus, the disaster has exposed a troubling problem within the administration — the distance it still must go to repair the government agencies broken and neglected under eight years of Bush.

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