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August deadliest month ever for U.S. in Afghan fighting; will war now trump Obama's health debate?

September 1, 2009 |  1:29 am

U S soldier in Afghanistan fighting

During that endless presidential campaign Americans endured recently, then-Sen. Barack Obama repeatedly criticized the Bush administration and Republicans for the Iraq troop surge and taking their eye off the real ball in the global war on terror -- by not vigorously pursuing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And Obama promised to resolutely prosecute that backwater struggle.

But now, suddenly, here comes the political problem for the Democratic administration:

In the last four weeks, while the country was focused on argumentative town hall meetings over healthcare, on family vacations, including Obama's own, and on the death of a single senior senator from a fabled family, nearly two American soldiers were dying every day in that eternally war-torn land.

August ended a few hours ago as the worst month of the entire Afghan war for Americans; 51 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in the little-noticed fighting. That's six more than....

...perished in July, the previous worst month. Or one American soldier's death every 14 hours or so.

In the first eight months of this year, 182 U.S. personnel have died there, compared with 155 during all of 2008.

The first Obama troop surge in Afghanistan has pushed the number of Americans fighting there to 62,000, with another 6,000 due to arrive in coming weeks, a total of 21,000 additional since Inauguration Day.

American War dead returning home

And military requests for even more are likely on top of that, all heading into a congressional midterm election year that usually means trouble for the party controlling the White House.

And that's historically true even in peaceful times, without a sick economy, automobile bailouts, high unemployment and a looming swine flu health crisis.

As recently as late July, political prognosticators predicted the autumn political debate would be dominated by Obama's keystone but troubled healthcare overhaul plan.

Then came the newly enlarged projected federal deficit, which the administration recently admitted underestimating by some $2 trillion.

That 10-year fiscal chasm is now expected to exceed $9 trillion. Which is 9,000 billion dollars for those whose calculators were made before 2009.

But with more U.S. troops on the ground, more en route and all of them using more aggressive tactics against the Taliban insurgents, the support-sucking casualty rate is unlikely to diminish.

A new report by the allied commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is expected to urge even more extensive American involvement in counter-insurgency there.

In the 223 days since Aretha Franklin's hat sang at Obama's inauguration, the new president's approval rating has fallen from 69% to 50%.

With the stark exception of his mid-August Phoenix speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Obama has for months been single-mindedly making the argument for domestic healthcare reform, not for fighting the Taliban over there to prevent future attacks over here. As one result, while support for healthcare reforms has slipped, so too has homeland support for the anti-terrorism war effort.

Ominously for Obama's professed policies, a Washington Post/ABC poll just 10 days ago showed that a majority of Americans no longer believe the Afghan fighting is worth it.

Only 24% back a troop increase.

And fully 45% favor a troop reduction.

Support for the war is particularly waning among Obama's fellow Democrats, especially on the left, which is already impatient over gay rights and rumored concessions on healthcare reforms.

When Congress returns to Washington in coming days, the unheard sounds of the distant war may become far louder on the political landscape there than anyone thought when those folks left town to discuss a different kind of preexisting condition.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credit: Associated Press (both).
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