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Except for a pause to honour Senator Edward Kennedy, healthcare reform has dominated US news and comment for weeks. It is seen as the make-or-break challenge for Barack Obama’s administration. Yet soon it may look unimportant in comparison with an issue that the US public has barely seemed to notice: the war in Afghanistan.

Casualties there are mounting – this has been the deadliest month for US forces since the fighting began in 2001. The losses have attracted less attention in the US than British losses have in Britain, and pressure on the administration to pull out has been mild. But this will change. When it does, Mr Obama will longingly recall those carefree months debating healthcare.

Quietly, public opinion has already turned against the war. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 51 per cent now say the war is not worth fighting. Among Democrats, seven out of 10 say that.

A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only 32 per cent agree with sending more troops – something the army is expected to request imminently. To the question “What do you think will eventually happen?” came a response to thrill every Taliban fighter: 65 per cent said “The United States will withdraw without winning” and only 35 per cent “The United States will win”.

The issue has not yet come to the boil but Mr Obama’s position is as difficult as it could possibly be. This is now his war. He asserted ownership again only recently, calling the conflict for the hundredth time “a necessary war”, unlike his predecessor’s supposedly needless “war of choice” in Iraq.

Yet Mr Obama’s war, necessary or not, will be hard to win, and impossible without greater expense of lives and money. Withdrawal, meanwhile, involves great dangers of its own. To complete the president’s quandary, his rationale for the war is unconvincing and, as the polls confirm, his strongest opposition comes from his own party.

The Afghanistan war is necessary, says Mr Obama, to deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary. But analysts point out that al-Qaeda’s leadership is no longer there: it has moved to Pakistan. The ungoverned areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan are anyway not the only such regions in the world. Why put 68,000 troops in Afghanistan and leave other plausible terrorist havens, such as Somalia, to their own devices?

There are better reasons to fight this war – but they are more complicated than “fighting al-Qaeda” and harder to sell to a sceptical public. The first is that a Taliban victory might destabilise Pakistan, by strengthening that country’s own jihadists. Since Pakistan has nuclear weapons, this is an extremely dangerous prospect. The other is that letting the Taliban succeed in Afghanistan would abandon people the US and its allies have promised to defend. That may not be a dangerous prospect for the west, but it sure is a revolting one.

Admittedly, the case is not clear-cut: both of these rationales are disputable. Some argue that fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan inflames anti-western sentiment in Pakistan so much that it aids the insurgency there more than a withdrawal would. As for the Afghans we have promised to defend, what happens if the Afghans themselves want the US to leave?

The longer the US and its allies are there, the less popular they will become. With too few troops to achieve security on the ground, the enemy must be attacked by air – which means civilian casualties. Foreign soldiers and civilians whose first concern is their own security are not apt to win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, the US has underwritten a flawed election and in due course will be seen as standing behind a new government of doubtful legitimacy. None of these arguments is easy to dismiss.

In short, Afghanistan is a war of choice, and a finely balanced choice at that. Given the risks of withdrawal, I think Mr Obama is right not to quit just yet – but to improve his chances of success he must bring his ends and means into closer alignment.

A rule of thumb for counter-insurgency operations is that you need one soldier for every 50 inhabitants. For Afghanistan, this gets you to well over 500,000 troops even before you start taking account of the terrain. That number is unthinkable. Counter-insurgency is never quick even when it succeeds, and the US is impatient.

Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment argued on this page on August 17 that limited US public support for the war was the key constraint – and that the mission’s goals must be narrowed accordingly. The latest polls, and reports that Mr Obama’s generals are being urged to rein back their request for more troops even before they have finished their assessment, suggest Mr Dorronsoro is right. His recommendation is to shore up the government, control strategic cities and roads, and secure buffer zones around them. Elsewhere, cede control to the other side and use force for defensive operations only.

These more limited goals would still be costly to achieve, and selling this strategy to the US public would still be difficult. Congress might not be much help either. Mr Obama and the Republicans have fallen out bitterly over healthcare and economic policy; the president cannot rely on their help on Afghanistan. Worse, unlike George W. Bush, he cannot count on his own party. Mr Obama is trying to do the right thing, but he will surely regret making this war his own.

clive.crook@gmail.com
More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook
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