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Rethinking Afghanistan

With Iraq calming and violence and casualties rising in Afghanistan, a more detailed and very interesting debate is beginning to form about what we should do over there. A few days ago I mentioned that a centrist-hawk type had told me he was very skeptical about whether NATO can pacify and stabilize the country, and now from the left comes Juan Cole:

I don't know whether Senator Obama really wants to try to militarily occupy Afghanistan even more than is now being attempted. I wish he would talk to some old Russian officers who were there in the 1980s first. Of course, it may be that this announced strategy is political and for the purposes of having something to say when McCain accuses him of surrendering in Iraq.

Cole is right about the politics, as far as that goes, although it's probably also true that the Democratic foreign policy establishment has been so Iraq-focused of late that its mandarins just haven't really thought Afghanistan through very carefully, so the consensus opinion is still stuck on a simple default "more troops" view. (By the way I'm not sure what the correct answer is--walking away from Afghanistan feels very ill-advised to me--just that I see this getting more complicated than many people seem to appreciate at the moment.

See Kevin Drum also. Links via Andrew.

Update: Here's the main Afghanistan passage from Obama's foreign policy-speech today. Note that he transitions to Pakistan policy and explains that the two are intertwined.

It is unacceptable that almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are still at large. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror. The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia. If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned. And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan.

Senator McCain said – just months ago – that “Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.” I could not disagree more. Our troops and our NATO allies are performing heroically in Afghanistan, but I have argued for years that we lack the resources to finish the job because of our commitment to Iraq. That’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month. And that’s why, as President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.

I will send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions – with fewer restrictions – from NATO allies. I will focus on training Afghan security forces and supporting an Afghan judiciary, with more resources and incentives for American officers who perform these missions. Just as we succeeded in the Cold War by supporting allies who could sustain their own security, we must realize that the 21st century’s frontlines are not only on the field of battle – they are found in the training exercise near Kabul, in the police station in Kandahar, and in the rule of law in Herat.

Moreover, lasting security will only come if we heed Marshall’s lesson, and help Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up. That’s why I’ve proposed an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance each year, with meaningful safeguards to prevent corruption and to make sure investments are made – not just in Kabul – but out in Afghanistan’s provinces. As a part of this program, we’ll invest in alternative livelihoods to poppy-growing for Afghan farmers, just as we crack down on heroin trafficking. We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narco-terrorism. The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring, because the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.

--Michael Crowley