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Afghanistan and Historical Watersheds

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As Washington plots its course for Afghanistan, it would do well to test alternatives against America's 20th-century chronicle of victories, defeats, stalemates and what-ifs. The record suggests that should a U.S. retreat produce a "negative watershed" materially advancing messianic totalitarianism, Washington must invest far more resources to defeat the insurgency. If not, cutting America's losses is not unreasonable.

History has tested Washington's ability to prevail in military hostilities and to win the peace on a number of occasions. In World War I, President Wilson's noble ambition to fight the "war to end all wars" crashed against the shoals of Old World politics. Overcoming the shame of the Versailles Treaty emboldened Adolf Hitler's egomaniacal revenge and portended a negative watershed, to which America's retreat into isolationism contributed.

The United States was determined not to repeat this narrative during and after World War II. It not only turned back the fascist onslaught, but also committed to the political transformation of Germany and Japan. Global history would have been far different had both "positive" watersheds not been achieved.

But the 20th century's turmoil would not rest. Soviet consolidation over Eastern Europe, the fall of China to communism followed by the Korean War and crises over Berlin, Taiwan and Cuba tested Washington against communist messianism. While the United States prevailed in most instances, it, too, suffered defeats. The Bay of Pigs left a thorn that remains. Then Vietnam. Tens of thousands of Americans perished for a false shibboleth: that the fall of Saigon would set off a domino cascade. But Washington compensated with an end run around Moscow through Beijing.

Vietnam generated yet another ironic twist: It fed the Kremlin's hubris. The resulting invasion and defeat in Afghanistan generated a ripple. Coupled with the more profound ripping of the Soviet bloc by nationalism and economic and political dysfunction, the resulting watershed proved the undoing of communism in Europe. Had we not effectively stayed containment's course, Soviet totalitarianism would have prevailed.

Optimists called the Cold War's demise the "end of history." History's challenges would not relent, however. A clash of civilizations emerged that now pits Western liberalism against Islamic radicalism with Iraq arguably serving as either a misguided detour, an incendiary booster to militancy or, still possibly, a victory of sorts.

This brings us to Afghanistan where the battle is now fought. America's intervention into central Asia's cockpit begs the question: Would a U.S. retreat mark merely a battle lost or the first domino to fall to Osama bin Laden's vision? In the latter case, do the possible consequences - increased regional radicalization and global terrorism - compare with the 20th century's unrealized negative watersheds that the success of fascism or communism posed? Or can Afghanistan's neighbors resist on their own coupled with offshore American support and prevent metastasis?

The answer will turn on the ability of surrounding regimes to immunize themselves from infection. Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet republics to the north have demonstrated a brutal capacity to suppress political violence to ensure survival. This suggests that even were Afghanistan to become a terrorist haven, the neighborhood can adapt and resist as Pakistan's military defeat of the Taliban in the Swat Valley demonstrated.

That said, the United States can retreat from the region. This would leave the Afghans to their own devices -- as Washington left Southeast Asia, Somalia, Lebanon to theirs -- to resolve affairs America cannot. The White House then can rebuild its strategic dikes on friendlier soil in neighboring nations and elsewhere and intervene in Afghanistan, if necessary, in limited targeted missions to strike terrorists and their havens as it repeatedly has done in Somalia. In that event, the United States may look back at Afghanistan -- like Vietnam -- as one battle lost but clearly not a watershed event.

Still, the pity of a failed American undertaking lies in the opportunity lost. Had Washington mustered a competent occupation, had it concentrated precious military and nation building resources early in the occupation when Afghan society was most malleable, the events begun in 2001 would not only have marked the positive transformation of a country, but, quite possibly, a positive regional and global watershed as well.