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On My Way To Afghanistan

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For seven-and-a-half years, the US military had a mission without adequate resources and without a sensible plan to kill Osama bin Laden and to annihilate the Taliban, and to deliver peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. We're batting 100 percent.

To highlight our stellar national failure, in each successive year for seven years the Taliban has grown stronger and more deadly. With the snow in the mountain passes now melting, the Taliban is about to kick off its annual ritual--the Spring Offensive. This should be the most violent annual ritual since the Soviets occupied Afghanistan several decades ago.

Lying on a padded chaise lounge in the Indira Gandhi International Airport outside New Delhi, it's three in the morning and I'm wide awake. In a few hours, I'll board Indian Airlines for Kabul and embed with various US military units and hopefully decipher what is going on in that country. As we know, what is going on is not good.

President Obama announced 17,000 US troops would join the fight, and Mullah Omar, head honcho of the Taliban, announced his own surge of troops. The former head of the British commando forces, the SAS, claimed our tactics in Afghanistan were "worthless," and the war nearly hopeless. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to remain only a little less pessimistic. Vice President Biden went to Europe to request more troops for Afghanistan and returned with a firm rejection. Ditto for Australia. It's not sounding good.

What, then, is the Obama Administration's plan to roll back this disaster moving full steam ahead? Without a plan, nothing good can happen, right?. What is true for the economy is true for foreign policy. Tomorrow the President will make his pitch for a new strategy, but today I'm flying to Afghanistan. So what will he say? Or more accurately, what has he already said?

First, President Obama will downsize US goals in Afghanistan. Forget about developing a full-fledged democracy; the country is not ready for prime-time. In fact, Afghanistan is not a country. It is a volatile collection of allegiance-shifting tribes and ethnic groups and warlords. Obama will focus on national security so Afghanistan does not return to being a platform to attack America. That seems realistic. The president has already floated the idea of talking to the Taliban, which was quickly rejected by Mullah Omar. No problem, Obama staked out the moral high ground. Now comes the crux of nearly every failed US military mission: strategy -- a word George Bush confused with that other big word, fantasy.

Obama's new strategy could be called the Afghanization of the Afghanistan War, although he certainly will not call it that. That sounds too much like the colossal failure, crafted by the duel geniuses of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, called the Vietmanization of the Vietnam War.

It does seem that when the United States screws up royally in Asia, it suddenly gets the brilliant idea to dump the entire screwed up mess on the home country military. Instead of our troops doing the killing, and the dying, have the home boys do the killing and dying. Obama will announce a large increase in US trainers for Afghanistan to double the size of the Afghan army and national police.

Yet, like in Vietnam, it may be too late in Afghanistan. Will US training and mentoring of Afghan troops be a stack of cards that collapses as soon as we blow out of the country?

I don't know -- but not knowing is not new to me. Three years ago, the night before the first time I arrived in Afghanistan, I wrote:

In my Paradise Inn room in neighboring Pakistan, I have been looking out the window at a dismal-looking building that is either half constructed or half demolished, I really can't tell which. There are piles of either construction material or removed debris, rods stick out of where the roof is going or where it once was. Two workers hammer on the rough brick wall, others sort through broken bricks of various sizes, one tiptoes on a wobbly scaffolding. I have been watching these workers for nearly a half hour and I honestly have no idea which way this building is going.

Societies are sometimes like that, it's hard to know which way they are going. Change is complicated, a drawn-out process with numerous detours and dead ends with lots of twists and turns making for a complex mix that easily obscures where you are headed. Amalendu Misra writes in Afghanistan: The Labyrinth of Violence, 'Most civil war-affected societies exhibit some forms of violence, instability and chaos in their transition to peace.' That is true. It is also true that most societies exhibit some forms of peace, stability, and order in their transition to war. Which is it for Afghanistan? Is it going up or down? Like the building next door, I don't know.

Three years later, we know which way Afghanistan was headed -- down! And in three more years, as the 2012 election heats up and an exit strategy becomes a hot campaign issue, will the United States have failed or succeeded in this Central Asian country? Will we leave Afghanistan after contributing to national stability or will the whole house of cards collapse? Will there be a desperate last helicopter off the roof of our Kabul embassy?

Unless we quickly adopt a strategy based on realism and one harnesses the Afghan people's desire for something better than perpetual war....

I glance at my watch, a few minutes past 6 AM. Pulling myself out of the soft chaise lounge, I walk toward the boarding gate. The long hallway is empty except for a few airport workers. Outside large windows a pink morning light is enveloped in a thick fog. It is quiet and eerie, which is how it always feels when going to a war zone.

At the boarding gate for Kabul, like for Baghdad a few years ago, like for Tirana in the '90s, San Salvador in the '80s, Beirut in the '70s, Saigon in the '60s, are rows of males (today a few females) sitting and glancing at each other and wondering who is that person across from them. Is he a US soldier or Marine in civilian clothes? Maybe a CIA agent? Possibly a humanitarian worker? How about a Journalist? But no one ever asks. There are only fleeting glances and quick guesses. Like the last seven years in America, when Americans never really asked what the game plan was in Afghanistan.

Now a new plan is coming, but will it be the right one? Is it too late, after seven long years, for any plan? Was there ever a time for a plan to succeed in Afghanistan? In three years we will know. Maybe in one year. Maybe this Spring Offensive.