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Obama and Afghanistan: Danger Danger Danger

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A leaked diplomatic cable published in France yesterday underscores the dangers that will confront a new Obama administration in Afghanistan.

Published in the French press, the cable quotes Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Afghanistan, predicting that the NATO-led military campaign against the Taliban will fail.

"The presence of the coalition, in particular its military presence, is part of the problem, not part of its solution. Foreign forces are the lifeline of a regime that would rapidly collapse without them. As such, they slow down and complicate a possible emergence from the crisis."

To consider the significance of this, think back to the first presidential debate, where yet again, Barack Obama made moving large numbers of American forces from Iraq to Afghanistan the centerpiece of his foreign policy. Then, to double the trouble, remember that the British have been the United States' closest ally in the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, don't forget that another central criticism Obama has made of the Bush administration was its unilateral approach to major foreign policy issues.

So here we have Senator Obama arguing, as the central point of his foreign policy, that the US needs to work more closely with its allies to escalate the war in Afghanistan, while the ambassador of our closest ally to Afghanistan forcefully argues in coded diplomatic cables that escalation would only make matters worse and policy must head in the opposite direction, towards taking troops out.

Tellingly, Ambassador Cowper-Coles sees the Obama and McCain policies on Afghanistan is equally disastrous.

"It is the American presidential candidates who must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan."

Don't get me wrong - I am NOT arguing that there is no difference between Obama and McCain on foreign policy. Obama wants to open diplomatic talks with Iran, McCain sings in public about bombing Iran. Not to mention Iraq and Georgia. However, the most urgent problem facing the next administration will be in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And here, in the assessment of the British ambassador (and myself), Obama's stated policy is at best unworkable and at worst catastrophic.

Obama and Biden are in an incredibly difficult position. The situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is rapidly unraveling, and presidential campaigns can't evolve policy at the same rate as an administration without seeming to "flip-flop." Just in the past few weeks Pakistan has collapsed into full scale civil war. A quarter of a million civilians have been displaced by the fighting. In places the situation for civilians is so bad that 20,000 have fled across the border to relative "safety" of Afghanistan!

Yet both Senators Obama and Biden continue to restate at every opportunity their readiness to strike across the Afghan border into Pakistan "if there is actionable intelligence" concerning the location of Osama bin Laden, a perspective on US priorities in the conflict that is frighteningly out of date.

These are very dark clouds on the horizon. As I have mentioned before, they underscore the similarities between Obama and JFK, but not the positive ones the Obama campaign plays on. After all, it was the Kennedy administration which decided to escalate in the face of a rapidly unraveling situation in South Vietnam, even as its European allies were counseling it to do the opposite. That was Kennedy, the young president who felt like he had to prove his mettle, and that of his Democratic Party and his younger generation of advisers. Is that ringing any bells?