08/08/2008 11:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Promise to 'Win' in Afghanistan -- Wise or Wrong?

That U.S. casualties had finally hit the 500 mark in Afghanistan drew wide press attention today, including coverage on the front page of The New York Times. Every so often now, the media notes that the ongoing American death toll in that country now eclipses the grim tally in Iraq. So the war in Afghanistan, long overlooked, is now getting more notice. Polls show that the American people are growing increasingly concerned, and pessimistic, about that conflict.

But does that mean the U.S., finally starting (perhaps) to dig out of Iraq, should now commit to another open-ended war, even for a good cause, not so far away?

Nearly everyone in the media, and on the political stage, say that this is the "good war." Liberals, including a certain senator named Obama, have long made political points on Iraq by stating that it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time - when we should have kept our eye on the ball in Afghanistan (and adjoining areas of Pakistan). Hell, I have made that argument myself, and it is not wrong.

We should have done that. And if we had, no doubt the situation in Afghanistan would be a lot better today, as would the overall "war on terror."

But we didn't, and now we are desperately trying to play catch up. So the overwhelming sentiment from American leaders, including Obama and many of his supporters, is: Take troops out of Iraq and move them (and maybe even more of them, as John McCain argues) right over to Afghanistan.

Obama has even said we must "win" there. But it's the same question we have faced in Iraq: What does he define as "winning"? How much are we willing to expend (in lives lost and money) at a time of a severe budget crunch and overstretched military? Shouldn't the native forces -- and NATO -- be doing more? And what about Pakistan? And so on. We've been fighting there even longer than in Iraq, if that seems possible. Now do want to jump out of a frying pan into that fire in an open-ended way?

Few voices in the mainstream media - and even in the liberal blogosphere - have tackled this subject, partly because of long arguing for the need to fight the "good war" as opposed to the "bad war." But now some very respected commentators - with impeccable pro-military credentials - are starting to sound off on the longterm dangers.

Joseph L. Galloway, the legendary war reporter -- recently retired from Knight Ridder - has written a column for McClatchy Newspapers ringing an alarm about Afghanistan, based largely on a recent paper written by Gen. Barry McCaffrey for use at West Point after his tour of the war zone. Spencer Ackerman, a former Iraq embed, covers this report, and quotes other military and former CIA officials in a piece at The Washington Independent at:

Earlier this week, Michael Miner at the Chicago Reader blogged in this vein, and quoted Thomas Friedman in a recent New York Times column: "The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want....Obama needs to ask himself honestly: 'Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?'"

Here is an excerpt from the Galloway column::

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who retired from the U.S. Army with four stars and a chest full of combat medals including two Distinguished Service Crosses, says we can't shoot our way out of Afghanistan, and the two or three or more American combat brigades proposed by the two putative nominees for president are irrelevant....

The general says that despite the two presidential candidates' sound bites, a few more combat brigades from "our rapidly unraveling Army" won't make much difference in Afghanistan. Military means, he writes, won't be enough to counter terror created by resurgent Taliban forces; we can't win with a war of attrition; and the economic and political support from the international community is inadequate.

"This is a struggle for the hearts of the people, and good governance, and the creation of Afghan security forces," McCaffrey writes. He says the main theater of war is in frontier regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the combatants are tribes, religious groups, criminals and drug lords. It'll take a quarter-century of nation-building, road and bridge building, the building of a better-trained and better-armed Afghan National Police and National Army and the eradication of a huge opium farming industry to achieve a good outcome in Afghanistan, McCaffrey wrote in his report to leaders at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

We can't afford to fail in Afghanistan, the general says, but he doesn't address the question of whether we can afford to succeed there, either.

Without NATO, we're lost in Afghanistan, he writes. But NATO's level of commitment and engagement in Afghanistan is woefully inadequate....

Greg Mitchell's new book features an intro by Galloway. It is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.