A New Path for Afghanistan

Posted March 27, 2009, at 7:08 p.m.

Vietnam is behind us. Iraq, in its seventh year, is still with us, but with an exit in sight. A big question confronting President Obama is how to avoid Afghanistan becoming another quagmire. He partially answered that question Friday with a plan that calls for additional resources and, more important, sets goals for the U.S. mission there.

Vietnam was a genuine nationalistic, anti-colonialist revolution, but U.S. leaders, steeped in Cold War thinking, couldn’t see that. They mistook it for communist expansionism. The decade-long U.S. intervention ended in humiliating defeat. Vietnam has developed into a peaceful, capitalist member of the world community although still dominated by its communist party. It could well have reached this point if U.S. troops had never set foot there.

Iraq was falsely represented as linked with al-Qaida and its Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and as close to developing nuclear weapons. The costly U.S. invasion and occupation has left Iraq with hundreds of thousands of war dead and wounded, shattered cities, and a problematic political and economic future. The question remains whether the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was worth it to us or to Iraq.

Afghanistan, unlike Vietnam and Iraq, constitutes a real threat, as the source of the 2001 attacks and as a potential source of new radical Islamist terrorism. President Obama calls the situation “increasingly perilous” and has now come out with outlines of a new “comprehensive” strategy. His goal is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” both al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is adding new U.S. troops and will increase training of Afghan forces. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan late last year, rightly noted that an increased military presence must be “carefully targeted.”

Moving in that direction, the president’s plan, for the first time, will impose periodic performance benchmarks for monitoring troop levels, although their timing and criteria are still being worked out.

Officials say his narrow goal of defeating the terrorists means shifting away from the Bush administration’s emphasis on nation building. But the Obama strategy also includes trying to stamp out opium production, a major source of Taliban income, and economic aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Diplomatically, he hopes to peel off moderate Taliban supporters and enlist help from Iran and other neighbors.

The plan also increases pressure on the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together, a difficult task since leadership in both countries has been unable to break ties to the Taliban or to minimize corruption.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is getting advice from all sides, ranging from an all-out military push to pulling out altogether. Perhaps the best has come from Leslie Gelb, a former senior official in the State and Defense departments and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in the March 21 Wall Street Journal. While acknowledging the need to fight terrorism, he urged focusing on “strong allies and potential partners more than on failing states, on actions where we can succeed, rather than on problems where failure looms” in short, “shifting our foreign policy from quagmires to opportunities.”

Although it is hard to see the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as an opportunity, this new context is necessary for success.

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