So Obama's inauguration finds the Long War in transition to a new fourth phase. In Iraq, the surge has reached its ambiguous conclusion: Petraeus has moved on, leaving to his successor the problem of extricating the 140,000 U.S. troops still there without destabilizing the country. More important, Afghanistan, now coupled with Pakistan, has returned to the front burner. In effect, the Long War that began in Central Asia in 2001 and then shifted to the Persian Gulf in 2003 is now seesawing back to Central Asia.
What has been lost along the way, in addition to over 4,000 U.S. troops and enormous sums of money, is any clear sense of purpose. No serious person believes any longer that the United States possesses the capacity to transform the Islamic world. Our efforts to drain the swamp have succeeded mostly in exacerbating the anti-Americanism on which the jihadists feed. Testifying before a Senate committee recently, Gates mocked the idea of converting Afghanistan into "some sort of a Central Asian Valhalla." Using a now familiar Pentagon mantra, he declared, "There is no purely military solution in Afghanistan."
At a time of trillion-dollar deficits and grave economic crisis at home, the questions must be asked: What will the Long War accomplish? How long will it last? What will it cost? Who will pay? The time to address these questions is now. Obama's freedom of action will never be greater than it is today. Should he dodge these issues and plunge more deeply into Afghanistan, the Long War will very soon become Obama's War. And he will richly deserve the obloquy to be heaped on his head as a consequence.