Afghan vote shows Taliban still potent

The violence-scarred elections in Afghanistan provided a stage for the Taliban to show war-weary Americans and Afghans that it has rebounded and can strike — even after eight years of war.

For President Barack Obama’s policies, the timing couldn’t be worse.

With memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dimming, Americans are tiring of the conflict. New polling shows a majority — 51 percent — of those surveyed now believe the war is not worth the fight, an increase of 6 percentage points in a month.

Obama’s answer to the mounting skepticism is to say that, in a way, the war has just begun. The final push to wipe out America’s Taliban and al-Qaida enemies is not eight years old but really got started when he took office and ordered 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan.

In short order, he also installed a new commander and persuaded Pakistan to join the U.S. in what on Thursday he called a pincer movement to squeeze the enemy astride the common border.

Obama’s ability to recast the public debate at home — to get people to look past the cost and the deadly violence there — may matter more in the long run than who won or lost the Afghan presidency.

Obama has not wavered from his campaign pledge to take the fight to the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He argues that the true danger to Americans lies in the towering peaks and vast deserts of those countries. The Bush administration, he asserts, wasted precious time, treasure and blood in Iraq.

Before then, he argues, problems in both countries were allowed to fester. As a result, the Taliban retook huge swaths of Afghanistan, and al-Qaida was comfortably ensconced on the Pakistan side of the mountainous border.

“We’ve got to make sure that we are really focused on finishing the job in Afghanistan. But it’s going to take some time,” the president said on a talk-radio program Thursday. He gave a nod to the election, saying it “appears to be successful” despite the “Taliban’s efforts to disrupt it.” Initial reports show 26 Afghans were killed in Taliban attacks on Election Day.

The Bush administration used earlier elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence of success of its war policies. This White House isn’t getting that boost.

The White House has been particularly reticent to talk about the Afghan vote, where the turnout appears to have been significantly lower than in the first-ever direct election of a president there in 2004. The administration is deeply aware of the country’s long history of bloody uprisings against past leaders who were seen as place men for foreign powers.

While Obama took office having publicly expressed disappointment in President Hamid Karzai over his ineffectiveness and a background noise of corruption surrounding his administration, he has not spoken of a preference for Thursday’s outcome.

Karzai’s strongest challenger is his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, who may show well when the votes are counted because of heavier turnout in the ethnically Tajik northern part of the country. The turnout was spotty in the Pashtun south where Karzai has major support. If neither Karzai, Abdullah nor any of the other 34 candidates wins 50 percent in the first round, there will be a runoff. Final results of the Thursday vote will not be known until Sept. 3.

Regardless of the Afghan vote or the diminishing support for the war back home, a White House strategy review is due out in mid-September, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is widely expected to press for a significant further increase in forces for his new counterinsurgency campaign.

Just three years ago the U.S. had about 20,000 forces in the country. Today, it has triple that, on its way to 68,000 by year’s end when all of the 17,000 newly deployed are in place.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week showed, however, that only 24 percent of Americans support that move, with 45 percent saying the force should be decreased.

The domestic political course for Obama’s overall Afghan strategy and for a further troop increase, thus, is growing ever more difficult to navigate.

And in a sparkling bit of political irony, backing for the war remains strongest among Republicans and conservatives who support the conflict by 70 percent and 58 percent, respectively.


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