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Afghanistan: The Indispensable Nation?

Now, it is all about Afghanistan.

In testimony before Congress today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates labeled Afghanistan as America's "greatest military challenge." Meanwhile, last week, there was considerable brouhaha over a liberal group's stand against U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan. It was talked about as a big story -- the left, again, seemed to be the vanguard for public opinion, pushing the envelope with an extreme position that could ultimately emerge as the mainstream view?

But this would suggest that there is a consensus about the need to prevail in Afghanistan. I missed that national debate.

It might be more helpful to ask just how it is that U.S. public opinion decided the war in Iraq was something Washington could walk away from, but Afghanistan, as the original nurturing ground of Al Qaeda, had to be definitively won. When -- but also why -- was this supposed consensus reached?

Granted, at the start of the 2008 presidential campaign, withdrawal from Iraq was the essential issue. It was Sen. Barack Obama's stand on withdrawal that successfully set him apart from most other candidates -- most notably the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

From the first, the young Illinois state senator spoke out against the war. This was a war of choice, he noted, a preventive action against a nation that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda and 9-11 -- no matter how often the Bush administration asserted this link. It was a sideshow of the "war on terror" that somehow filled the center ring.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, which had been the proper focus of America's attention immediately after Sept. 11, slid out of sight. The U.S. gaze had drifted southward -- and so bin Laden had escaped capture, the Taliban had regained a foothold, the warlords clenched tighter control and the heroin trade boomed.

But this grave wrong, the argument went, would be righted once Washington got the hell out of Iraq. The troop surge in Iraq had dangerously stretched the U.S. military capacity. But once withdrawal started, these subsequent cascading errors could be addressed. The needed American troops could at last be sent into Afghanistan, and the correct focus be restored.

But why is this the correct focus? Who decided that America had to "win" Afghanistan in order to prevail in the war of terror?

No occupying power, from Alexander the Great through czarist Russia, the British Empire and the Soviet Union, has been able to exercise full control in Afghanistan. When did this become Washington's essential, its indispensable aim?

When invading Afghanistan was first discussed, this historical fact had been part of the discussion. But it was one of many points lost amid the fog of war.

Last spring, Thomas Powers, who has been thinking about war and conflict for more than 30 years, wrote a terrific piece for The New York Review of Books that made this argument. In talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, he said that the latter was "an even more intractable problem."

Powers wrote:

What is remarkable about the situation in Afghanistan -- even astonishing -- is that the Americans, after watching 100,000 Russians fight Afghans at great expense with no success for nine years, have signed on for a dose of the same. ... The Russians walked into Kabul with ease, as invaders of Afghanistan invariably do, but after that it was mounting trouble all the way. The Russians paid a substantial price for thinking they could "win" if they stuck to it -- a still-hidden number of dead soldiers, probably exceeding 20,000, and perhaps five times that number of seriously wounded; loss of 500 aircraft, including 350 helicopters; huge quantities of other equipment destroyed....

Shrugging off the lessons of history is the preface to disaster in Afghanistan. The Afghans seem so weak -- an impoverished people living in mudbrick houses making a hardscrabble living; shepherds, farmers and nomads answering to feudal lords ruling tiny villages connected by dirt tracks over rocky mountain passes. How tough can it be to whip these skinny men in rags and occupy their country?

So why must Afghanistan be America's "greatest military challenge?" Why is the war on terror now all about Afghanistan?

Capturing bin Laden, who is supposedly lurking in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is one thing, but looking to subdue a nation that, over centuries, has not yielded to outside power seems a fool's errand.

And if the new president is one thing, he is the opposite of a fool.