LONDON, England — It is becoming clear that the decisive battle in the war in Afghanistan is the battle for public opinion, and as military casualties from the summer campaign mount, there are increasing signs that the battle is being lost on the home front.
Here in Britain, the public sees more coffins on their television than viewers do in America. Funerals of fallen soldiers have become a recurring feature on British news programs. Solemn crowds line the street as the cortege passes through their town. Veterans of earlier wars turn out to honor the dead of this war.
The British losses in Afghanistan have not been huge — fewer than in the brief 1982 Falklands War — but they hit home. Oppositions parties berate the government for failing to provide better equipment for the troops. The generals would like more boots on the ground. But opinion polls show that half of the British want their government to bring all the troops home.
British participation in the war is critical to the American campaign in Afghanistan. Britain has deployed more than 8,000 troops who provide significant firepower, mainly in Helmand Province where the Taliban are putting up the stiffest opposition. If America's key ally begins looking for a way to pull out, that would shake American public support for the war. So far, the British government is standing firm. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to provide a modest increase in troop strength in response to President Barack Obama's plea for more help. But most of America's allies are reluctant to do more.
And so, increasingly, are Americans. A recent Washington Post poll showed only 24 percent support putting more troops in Afghanistan, while 45 percent want to start bringing the troops home. A sharp public debate has begun in the U.S. about how to respond to an expected call for more soldiers from U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO and American troops in Afghanistan.
The conservative mullahs of America's airwaves will accuse President Barack Obama of defeatism, or worse, if he does not send more troops. But more troops will inevitably mean more American casualties, and that in turn will increase public uneasiness about this war that seems to have no clear strategy and no end.
The influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is now questioning whether Americans should be shedding blood for a country that lives off drug dealing and tramples on democratic values and women's rights. Nation building, which Republicans once despised, is now pooh-poohed by Democrats.
The issues are being debated within the administration itself, with key officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushing for more troops in Afghanistan, while Vice President Joe Biden prefers to put more resources in Pakistan.
Obama, who bought into this war that the previous administration started, is now starting to hedge his bets, emphasizing that the war is about U.S. National security rather than human rights and democracy. Administration officials have begun laying down markers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Los Angeles Times that progress must be shown by next summer in order to avoid the public perception that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. White House National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen have echoed his warning that the window of opportunity in Afghanistan is closing.
In foreign policy circles, some experts are making the argument that the rationale for the war is no longer valid. The U.S. no longer needs to make a long-term investment in Afghanistan to deprive Al Qaeda of a sanctuary because Al Qaeda's operational capabilities have been greatly diminished, and even if successor terrorist organizations are still a threat, they are more likely to be based in places such as Pakistan or Somalia. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is a losing game because time is always on the side of insurgents. Besides, the Taliban do not pose a threat to mainland America, only to America's soldiers in Afghanistan. So goes this argument.
The simple fact about most of the arguments for and against continuing the war in Afghanistan is that, in the final analysis, the debate is more or less academic. Why? Because public opinion, as it should in a democracy, will decide the issue.
And at this point, eight years into the war in Afghanistan, there is little prospect that public opinion on either side of the Atlantic will support the additional five, 10 or even 15 years of fighting that most military experts think would be required to pacify and stabilize one of the world's poorest, most backward and ungovernable countries.