Whether Gen. Stanley McChrystal stays or goes Wednesday, the uproar over his comments in a Rolling Stone article has moved the Afghanistan war back to front burner status at a time when it is unlikely to help President Obama politically.
U.S. forces are having trouble accomplishing their mission. The conflict has now dragged on longer than the Vietnam War. Over 1,000 U.S. soldiers have now died there. And public support for the war has been declining.
In recent months, bad news from Afghanistan has slowly bubbled up into the American consciousness. A poll in May showed that 52 percent of Americans said the war was not worth fighting, up eight points from a December survey.
The public is likely to pay even closer attention now to the war, and will not like what it sees.
The Rolling Stone article which became a must read Tuesday detailed how McChrystal and U.S. forces are struggling to secure the southern Afghan city of Marja and have had to postpone their offensive in the much larger city in the south, Kandahar.
Even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday that he has “reticence on the probability of success.”
If Afghanistan were to remain front and center in the national news here at home for any prolonged period, it would only exacerbate what has already become a troubled and exasperating stretch for Obama and national Democrats. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated Obama’s presidency for the last two months, rendering him unable to do much else.
Spending bills are bogged down in Congress, as Democrats and Republicans fight over whether to pass unemployment insurance and Medicaid assistance without paying for them. The prospects for an energy bill with a climate component, or for immigration reform, are being crowded out.
Tony Cordesman, an expert on Afghanistan who has traveled to the region to consult with McChrystal, said the next few months of fighting and attempting to establish a presence in the South will be crucial, both for the overall war effort and for maintaining public support.
“Americans need to see evidence that we have a working approach to the war and that it is making real progress. That is what counts,” Cordesman said in an interview.
If Obama does not sack McChrystal, Cordesman said, “there still is the option that McChrystal could play a very strong role.”
“If this offensive succeeds in three months, this incident is going to be just as historically relevant as any verbal gaffe is when the person goes on to success, which is to say, it will provide an interesting anecdote,” Cordesman said.
But whether the American people have the patience for another summer of war is a separate question. Obama has already said he will begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, though he has also said that conditions on the ground will influence his decision.
When Obama appeared with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May, the president expressed a serene confidence in the war effort and in the counter-insurgency strategy devised by McChrystal.
‘I am more convinced than ever that we have found a difficult, but appropriate strategy for pursuing those goals. And I’m confident that we’re going to be able to achieve our mission,” Obama said.
His next line was, “There are going to be setbacks.”
The next few weeks will determine just how big of a setback the current one is.