The second-best news I heard during these last few historic days didn't make tears stream like the moment Obama soared above 270, didn't cause me to go slack on the couch with some pride-relief hybrid like when the president-elect's victory speech reached out to "those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world," didn't cause me to hold my daughter extra tight like the scenes of brotherhood from Grant Park, didn't cause me to cuddle my son and whisper "I love you" more times than he knew how to handle like I did this morning as I surveyed the better future this American choice might mean for him and his world.
No, the second-best news I heard during these last few historic days merely made moot what seemed like an impossible, quixotic question: How will I -- a nobody typing on a laptop 2,765 miles (as the crow drives) from America's capital city -- get Barack Obama to read one particular book before he takes the oath of office? How, to be specific, will I get Barack Obama to read Ghost Wars, Steve Coll's Pulitzer-winning book subtitled "The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001"?
My wife delivered this second-best news. She'd just read a Nov. 2 New York Times piece about Obama and noticed a tidbit she figured might interest me.
"Hey, Barack's reading Ghost Wars," she said with the casualness you'd expect from someone who didn't quite realize she was delivering incredibly awesome news and crossing off the most unattainable item on my to-do list.
It's hard to sum up why getting Obama to read Ghost Wars felt so important to me.
Maybe the best way is to tell you about a blog post I've been trying to write since springtime. Back then, a dread had come over me -- a sense that American leaders, including the man I wanted so badly to be president, didn't realize how doomed our mission in Afghanistan was threatening to become. I'd been picking up disturbing signals here and there. They kept piling up. A photo tucked away on page 39 of a June 18, 2008 Government Accountability Office report seemed to sum up so much of what worried me about progress in the troubled country that had been so thoroughly overshadowed by our Iraq fiasco. The photo showed trucks that had been purchased for the Afghan National Police. The GAO report explained: "more than 1,500 trucks have been on hand and ready for issue since late 2007, but the Afghan Minister of Interior has delayed distribution of these vehicles until adequate accountability procedures and driver training are established in the target districts."
I tried to counter my pessimism by seeking out optimistic words. I found optimistic remarks delivered in May 2007 by Ronald Neumann, America's former ambassador to Afghanistan. Neumann's can-do spirit was admirable. Here he was talking about efforts to generate tax revenue so the Afghan government can function:
"But until you create an industrial sector, you haven't got anything to tax. And, you know, you're not going to go with an AK in one hand and a tin cup in the other and tax the farmer. So you're going to have to create something that's taxable, but to get there you have to create a regulatory structure, and we're doing that."
Did you catch that? We just have to complete two simple tasks so the Afghans can collect taxes and sustain their own government:
1) Create a regulatory structure.
2) Industrialize a war-torn agrarian society.
So Neumann's "optimistic" outlook only added to my pessimism.
By that time, I'd traded e-mails with an Army counterinsurgency expert who I respect and asked him to suggest a reading list for my study of Afghanistan. He recommended Charlie Wilson's War, Not a Good Day to Die, and a chapter in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare.
But there was a fourth book that sat at the top of the expert's list: Ghost Wars, the book I don't need to get Barack Obama to read because he's already reading it.
Ghost Wars stopped me cold. The complexity that emerged from its pages is the reason I shelved my plans to blog about Afghanistan. As I later wrote in an e-mail to the man who'd suggested my reading list:
"I have to tell you that Afghanistan scares the crap out of me. In crucial ways, it seems like a tougher problem than Iraq. While it's plainly a country that you can find on a map, the place seems to lack any cohesiveness, any homegrown reason to even exist as a single country. I worry about how we can make things work in such a place. I find myself wishing we'd waited very, very patiently for bin Laden & Co. to slip up and taken them out without invading and taking on responsibility for the whole mess of a country.
"I hope you are right, that Iraq does hold lessons for Afghanistan. My fear, with troop levels now falling according to schedule in Iraq, is that Afghanistan may offer lessons for Iraq: namely, as the Taliban are showing, that you sometimes can't tell for years whether a routed enemy is actually beaten for good."
Basically, my only solutions to Afghanistan involve the use of a time machine. And that's no solution at all.
Thankfully, Obama and his advisers are sharper thinkers than I am. So they may find a way forward -- even a really good way forward. Knowing now that Obama has read the book that lays out the Afghanistan problem in all its messy detail gives me much more faith that our country and our allies stand some chance of cleaning up President Bush's lesser-known war fiasco.
We should all read Ghost Wars. Gov. Palin should read it. So should Rudy Giuliani. Anyone at all who has a history of shrieking "white flag of surrender!" should read it. As far as I'm concerned, we should hold proud victory parades for our returning troops if we manage to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan without suffering the same bled-dry fate as the Soviet Union once did.
Yes we can. I hope.
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