President Obama headed to Camp David on Wednesday with some not-so-light vacation reading. He is carrying a report from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan that warns winning the war there will take greater resolve.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report comes at a time of mounting casualties in Afghanistan, and waning support at home for the war.
Fifty-one American troops were killed in Afghanistan last month, making August the deadliest month since the war began eight years ago. At the same time, a survey by McClatchy Newspapers finds a majority of Americans now oppose sending any more combat troops. A similar pattern has been seen in earlier conflicts.
"If Americans are confronted with a prolonged war with mounting casualties, support tends to drop off," says political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College. "And it's particularly true when the results of the war are not immediately apparent. There's nothing really in a physical sense that you can point to in Afghanistan that shows very dramatic and visible progress."
With its disputed elections for president and provincial councils last month, Afghanistan has also been getting a lot more media attention in the United States. And much of what Americans are hearing and seeing is not pretty.
On Tuesday, conservative columnist George Will called for a substantial reduction of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He wrote that nation-building there is impossible and called Afghanistan's central government corrupt and ineffective.
Will's opposition was striking. But Obama has seen a bigger erosion in support from the political left — the very people who cheered Obama for his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Last week, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) called for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
If Obama hopes to fend off that kind of pressure, Pitney says, he will have to keep making the case that U.S. security is at stake.
"It was an easy case to make in 2001, right after the attacks of 9/11," Pitney says, referring to the U.S. invasion to drive al-Qaida and the Taliban from Afghanistan. "But memories of the attacks have faded. And the president has to remind people the Taliban is still part of a threat to the United States."
Pitney suggests that Obama should dust off language from the previous administration about the "war on terror," which Obama and his aides have studiously avoided, until now.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs used that phrase earlier this week, when he called for patience in Afghanistan.
"You can't underresource the most important part of our war on terror for five or six or seven years, and hope to snap your fingers and have that turn around in just a few months," Gibbs said Monday.
Mindful of the sensitive politics, McChrystal did not ask for any more troops in his report. But White House officials say a request for thousands of additional troops could be coming within a few weeks.