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Obama Faces Divided US Public, Congress on Afghanistan


President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan comes at a time when the American public appears increasingly skeptical about the long-term U.S. role there. In addition, Mr. Obama faces opposition from some members of his own Democratic Party who fear a quagmire in Afghanistan, and doubts from some Republicans who question his commitment to the struggle.

With more U.S. troops headed into harm's way in Afghanistan, U.S. public-opinion polls show declining support for the war.

This is Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown:

"Generally, enthusiam for the war in Afghanistan is waning, and support for the president's handling of it is dropping," said Peter Brown.

For many Americans, finding a job and getting affordable health care are more important priorities than the war in Afghanistan, a concern the president addressed in his speech.

"That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended, because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own," said President Obama.

Some liberal Democrats have vowed to fight the troop increase in Congress. They worry about the cost of additional troops and fear the United States could become entangled in another quagmire like the Vietnam War.

This is Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin:

Senator Russ Feingold
Senator Russ Feingold

"Many members of my caucus, and I believe members of the Republican caucus, perhaps from different philosophical perspectives, will come to the same conclusion, that this is a mistake to move in the direction of this huge troop buildup," said Russ Feingold.

But the president also faces criticism on the right, from Republicans concerned about his plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the middle of 2011.

Senator John McCain spoke on ABC's Good Morning America:

"But when you tell your enemies that there is a date when you are going to start leaving, if that is what it is, it emboldens your enemies and dispirits your friends," said John McCain.

To fund the troop buildup, the president may have to turn to the same Republicans who are trying to kill his health-care reform plan, says pollster Peter Brown.

"One of the things that is interesting about Afghanistan and potentially very important to the politics of this thing is that the coalition behind President Obama for being in Afghanistan is diametrically different than the coalition that is backing him on his domestic agenda," he said.

With the U.S. public divided over the way forward in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama faces a major political challenge at home that will test his presidential leadership skills.

Kim Kagan is a military historian and president of the Institute for the Study of War:

"Although we live in a democracy here in America, and American public opinion is an essential component of how our elected leaders think about these problem sets, what we also see is that leadership matters," said Kim Kagan.

Experts say the best way to build support for the war at home is to achieve some success on the ground, but that will take time.

Michael O'Hanlon is a foreign policy and defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington:

"If Americans see progress, remember the stakes of this war and recognize that we are not going to be there forever, but that we need a couple more years to consolidate the progress that we have begun to achieve, that the public will stay behind the effort, begrudgingly, unhappily, but nonetheless at the end of the day with support," said Michael O'Hanlon.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama often criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war in Afghanistan.

But analysts say the president's speech outlining his new strategy effectively transfers responsibility of the war to Mr. Obama, and they say his political fate will be closely tied to a successful outcome in Afghanistan.