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Rethinking Afghanistan

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What in the world is Barack Obama thinking? Mercifully, he plans to scale down and end the Iraq misadventure, yet he insists he will expand the effort in Afghanistan, and pursue Osama bin Laden to the ends of Tora Bora. In his first debate with John McCain, Obama said: "We have seen Afghanistan worsen, deteriorate. We need more troops there. We need more resources there. . . . So I would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan." (

Are Obama's foreign policy advisers, like those in the State Department in the 1960s who talked of falling dominoes and drawing the line in the sand in Vietnam, absolutely ignorant of history and of the limitations of American power? Or has he surrounded himself with the Clinton's advisers of the 1990s who drove us deeper into the quagmire of Iraq, and gave aid and comfort to the neo-cons who harbored grandiose visions of expanding American power and influence in the Middle East?

We can also ask whether Obama plans to follow Niall Ferguson and his merry band of neo-con followers who want America to be what the British Empire failed to be -- oblivious, of course, to the graveyard that was Afghanistan for British imperial dreams. Or do Obama and his advisers forget how we gleefully supplied the mujahideen with awesome weapons to turn their country once again into a graveyard -- this time for Soviet ambitions? In those days, the lessons of Vietnam still remained clear and the CIA indulged in an orgy of self-congratulation for making Afghanistan the Soviet's Vietnam.

Now we have a preview of a forthcoming national intelligence estimate, pointing to the obvious: the Taliban has recovered its strength, nearly in proportion to the ineffectiveness and corruption in the present Afghan government. This report, not due for completion until after the November election, nevertheless, has been dutifully leaked (New York Times, October 9, 2008). Such thinking parallels the conclusions the British have reached.

The UK commander in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, praised his forces for having taken "the sting out of the Taliban for 2008." But he also issued a warning for lower expectations. "We are not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan Army," the Brigadier said. Shades of Vietnamization! (Financial Times, October 6, 2008.) Other NATO commanders in the field also have warned that military means alone are not going to reduce the threat. Ultimately, negotiations will have to bring a political solution.

The Bush White House reacted with predictable anger. Spokesman Gordon Johndroe (see "Ubiquitous Gordon Johndroe moves to the NSC, insisted that "we plan on winning in Afghanistan. It's going to be tough and going to take some time, but we will eventually succeed." Meantime, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked Saudi Arabia to mediate with the Taliban -- apparently not without irony, given the Saudi commitment to fundamentalist thought, only several degrees from Taliban policies.

The White House was noticeably silent after the UK's Defense Ministry reacted to its field commander's assessment, saying it "did not have a problem" with warning the British people not to plan on "a decisive military victory' and instead prepare for the best deal that can be made.

So, back to October 2008 and the American election. John McCain apparently has little interest in Afghanistan. For him, as he repeatedly said, his line in the sand for the War on Terrorism is Iraq. What else can we expect of him? He brushed aside the debate moderator's attempt to draw him out on the lessons of Vietnam; he slipped that knot by simply using Iraq in his topic sentence. McCain's time as a POW marginalized him at a time when America learned the painful lesson of the limits of power. At least until the Bush White House sold its snake oil conclusions on the threat from Iraq.

And Barack Obama? Is the healthy healing and reinvigoration of his promise to be dashed on the rocks of Afghanistan and Tora Bora? Why are Democrats and liberals so fearful of the war-loving Right that they think they must have their own adventures? Fortunately, such "progressive" stalwarts as Barney Frank, Henry Waxman, and several others, apparently are feeling a little less heat and have withdrawn support from the onerous H.Con.Res.362 that would have paved the way for a naval blockade of Iran. Obama must recognize that he cannot appease the neo-cons, the Right, or whatever we call those who nurture our great national industry of dispatching mercenaries around the globe.

Obama and his advisers would do well to understand Afghanistan's history -- and for good measure, its geography. We can ill-afford the costs of the lives and treasure resulting from mistakes, based on the premise of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, that we "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." There are limits to our power -- sadly, presidential candidates will not utter that truth.

Would that Obama repeat in 2008 what he said in 2002: he did not oppose war; only dumb ones. Our diminished capacities and resources make such endeavors problematic. Then, too, we might do something other than ignore present realities and forget the past.

Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate, among other writings.

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