Governments of democratic countries take a big risk when they go to war. The war can only go on if the people allow it. If public sentiment turns against the war, perhaps because too many troops are dying, a new government will come to power and end it. Vietnam is a good example of this: public opposition in the US increased every year until the war ended.
President Barack wants to increase American and NATO troop levels in Afghanistan for a war that up to now has looked unwinnable. Some reports have certainly said that troop levels are too low, so more fighters could be the way to gain the ground that has been slipping away. But the insurgency NATO is fighting has been increasing in intensity. Moreover, Pakistan is slowly crumbling and could become the next Afghanistan: ineffectual, corrupt government, violent, chaotic, and a hotbed of Muslim hatred of the West.
If that were not enough, NATO has been talking about rebalancing its priorities, afraid of Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe and the Arctic. While Barack might want to focus his war efforts on Afghanistan, his allies have other worries. For international alliances, public opinion in other countries matters just as much as at home.
The main reason the US effort in Vietnam failed was because the marines did not win hearts and minds. Hearts and minds means building hospitals and schools, protecting civilians and arresting–but not torturing–those who target them. If the accounts are correct, there is some effort to do these things in Afghanistan. Could more be done? Could we see the results? And are Afghanis really benefiting from NATO’s presence? The answers to these questions are in the hands of the militaries, in charge of strategy and the media, in charge of perception.
I predict that the public in the US, Canada and Britain will lose patience with the war in Afghanistan before NATO’s mission is complete. If there are not marked improvements in the lives of most Afghanis in the next two years, expect the boys home by 2012.