Afghanistan Is Obama’s ‘Exquisite’ Foreign Policy Dilemma

What do we want Afghanistan to look like when we're done?

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Whither or wither the United States in Afghanistan at the other end of the earth?

Afghanistan is about much more than Afghanistan. That's the main lesson I learned recently at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, an international gathering of 7,000 professors with panels on every subject under the sun, with guest speakers that included military and media experts. What follows is based on notes taken there, from several sources, who reached a broad consensus.

For the military and the press, the long shadow of Vietnam hangs over Afghanistan. After the demoralizing wars of Vietnam and Iraq, Afghanistan remains in front of us as a third test of our place in the world. As the Soviet Union and the British Empire found out, it's hard to “win” anything in the rugged terrain inhabited by tribal people, many of whom are illiterate. Yet because President Obama made this war his own in the campaign, it’s also very hard to walk away. This is an “exquisite” foreign policy dilemma for a young president, said one speaker.

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Here at home, it doesn't help matters that the public is not really paying attention, not schooled in the difference between Army tactics and strategy. By now, the conflict which George W. Bush began as a swift house call on Osama bin Laden in his cave has turned into the longest war in our history, going back to the American Revolution itself. The war costs about $100 billion a year, everyone--is it worth that much to you? Maybe not, but we're there now, stuck in a kind of superpower quicksand--and there's only one of us left in the global village.

American officials in the country say that the situation is so bad that they hope for a change from "dysfunctional corruption" to "functional corruption"  within the Afghan government. A key goal is developing political strategy to allow space and time for governance to emerge. President Hamid Karzai does not inspire confidence in this department, to say the least. The picture looks bleaker still when you consider the next-door neighbor, the fragile-as-glass Pakistan, teeming with some 170 million people. As another speaker said, "We need to make sure that doesn't go south."

The American people are being shortchanged in this sense: Nobody is leveling with us about how long this war could take, and the challenging conditions on the ground now. While there are some signs of local neighborhood programs taking root, the military is working hard out there in a very frustrating mission. Our democracy has not had a real dialogue about the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan since spooked by September 11. Nor have we seen evidence of a new "forward-leaning" strategy for preventing failed states, to borrow a phrase.

Afghanistan hovers perilously close to being a failed state, yet it's also famously hostile to outside intervention, which is why Mikhail Gorbachev decided to call it a day there when he became the leader of the USSR in the mid-1980s. He called Afghanistan a "bleeding wound" in his own nation and unceremoniously brought Soviet troops home, never mind the message that sent to the world. That left our guys, our friends the mujahideen, in place. What a pretty mess it all turned out to be.

Speaking strictly for me, maybe Obama should do the same as Gorbachev if his impending deadlines, which he set publicly, don't bring soldiers home. Then again, as a former commander put it, what do we want Afghanistan to look like when we're done? The question then becomes whether we can actually achieve that.

What do you think the president should do in this exquisitely delicate foreign policy dilemma?

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on Afghanistan.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.