By contrast, Obama sees Afghanistan as "the right war," though one allowed to drift amid Bush's Iraq fixation. The incoming president promises to bolster the current 34,000 U.S. troops with at least two brigades; they will join 30,000 from other countries. But the war instigated seven years ago to root out the perpetrators of 9/11 has entered, warn U.S. intelligence agencies, "a downward spiral." An insurgency in impoverished rural areas fights on, with sanctuaries in the mountainous tribal realms of Pakistan. It is fueled by opium money and disdain for a Kabul government unable to clamp down on corruption or extend its dominion. At least 153 U.S. soldiers perished there in 2008, more than in any previous year.
Pressure for a new strategy in Afghanistan is building. "We're not going to defeat them on the battlefield," says Scowcroft. Instead, the coming troop surge is likely to be paired with a broader campaign to ease poverty, provide services, and buck up the Kabul government. The idea of negotiating with some insurgents is gaining support in national security circles. Such a political process would try to peel off elements of the Taliban vaguely called the "reconcilables." But the period for a purely military defeat of the Taliban, if it ever existed, appears to have slipped away.
Bush also passes on the campaign to vanquish al Qaeda. The often clandestine conflict has seen tactical victories but promises to go on for years. Al Qaeda has adapted to U.S. and allied pressure by morphing into a far-flung network of Islamist terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden remains at large, most likely holed up in Pakistani tribal lands.
Other risks are growing. Footloose foreign militants who gravitated to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan could well stage attacks elsewhere. Pakistan and its tribal areas are already considered the main wellspring of international terrorism, as November's stunning attacks in Mumbai help illustrate.
Plenty of other unfinished business awaits Obama. He and his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will likely need to train much of their diplomatic energy on the Mideast. Bush recently argued that it "is a freer, more hopeful, and more promising place than it was in 2001." That is not the view there. Instead, the U.S.-led Iraq invasion and occupation, along with Bush's democracy-promoting "Freedom Agenda," are seen as having shaken, rather than settled, the region. Iran and the radical movements Hezbollah and Hamas have expanded their influence. U.S. activism for an Israeli-Palestinian peace came late, and the effort is stalled. Palestinians are divided into two camps, with Hamas having taken over Gaza after winning U.S.-promoted elections. Washington is distrusted by most Arabs as reflexively pro-Israel, leaving America's Arab allies on the defensive.
Advancing peace. Against that backdrop, the Israeli-Palestinian question is likely to see new attention. For all its frustrations, such peacemaking is still key to U.S. aims: reducing terrorism and anti-Americanism, blunting the influence of Iran and radical movements, bringing security to Israelis and Palestinians, and winning over Arab help on stabilizing Iraq and other issues.
Obama has said he will try to advance peace "from the minute I'm sworn into office." He may well feel compelled to, if only to ease the volatility of a region that can overwhelm other priorities and propel tragedy onto faraway shores. "What happens in the Middle East won't stay there. We're not talking about Las Vegas," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.