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What To Do About Afghanistan

During the presidential campaign the Republicans ridiculed Barack Obama's focus on Pakistan as the strategic key to the struggle against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.  In several speeches and one in particular at Princeton, as I noted in this space now long ago, he had the temerity to suggest that the U.S. might be pushed to target terrorist camps in Pakistan, with the permission of its government or without. That is, already then, Obama saw (parts of) Pakistan as the territorial base of a hideous Muslim war against other Muslims and also against America.

But, of course, there is no really functional border or even demarcation line between Pashtun tribal areas on both sides of the imagined divide between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Or, as Richard Holbrooke told the Times of India on March 23, the military and political struggles in each country are really one cutting across the two. George Bush had no attention span for either.  And if he actually had had some real interest in them the Democrats would surely have made his life even more miserable than they had on account of Iraq.

It is time by now to stop the rhetorical competition between Iraq and AfPak.There has been substantial progress towards a calmer civilian life in Iraq, and much of this progress can be attributed to the surge.  In any case, the increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan, first, by 17,000 to over 50,000, and then by a further 4,000 announced in the last days would have been unthinkable had there not been great military and civilian gains in Iraq. The fact is that these conflicts are co-terminous, at least from the American perspective.

But our allies have not much cottoned to the Afghan conflict.  This poses a problem for the president.  If he cannot influence our most trustworthy allies like Germany in this matter (or on economic stimulus in the "other" matter), he will be left not re-engaging our friends but pleading with our antagonists: Iran, Syria, Argentina, etc.

Yet the truth is that Obama had been genuinely seized by the armed anarchy in the two "stan" neighbors and the peril it poses for civilized life.  And he has no illusions about how long and difficult the struggle against it might be.  In fact, I suspect that the plaudits with which he has been showered by neo-con and other idealistic foreign policy strategists might embarrass him and drive his left-wing supporters nuts.  (On this, we'll see in the next days.)  Robert Kagan praised him on AfPaq in the Washington Post.  The president hit a triple in "Contentions," the web-site of John Podhoretz's Commentary, with praise from Abe Greenwald, Peter Wehner and also Max Boot.  The Wall Street Journal, a bit churlishly, but only a bit, almost cheered: "the best news in yesterday's speech is that Mr. Obama has now taken ownership of this war."  Anyway, I am cheering.

The real question is whether Democrats have the gumption to support a battle that will not be easy, will be laden with inevitable error and cause many civilians casualties (like Israel in Gaza, and much more because we will be flying unmanned drones) and will put the country, with blood and gore, at odds with many many millions of Muslims not only in the two target states but elsewhere... and let's not say where.

There was an internal squabble in this decision, apparently with the vice president being the strongest sceptic.

And don't miss an article in Saturday's Boston Globe by the two journalists, Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman, I praised just a while ago. The headline says, "Afghan war to take years, Obama declares."

But the Globe dispatch also reports dissension in the Democratic ranks, right here in the Bay State. First, a weasely comment, from Representative James McGovern: "I certainly support the president keeping the American people safe from Al Qaeda... But..." Yes, there is a big but:  "But I have deep concerns.I get this sinking feeling that we are getting sucked into a war without end."

There was a surprise at the end of the piece.  And of an altogether different kind.  Sarah Chayes was a daughter of friends of ours in Cambridge, Abram and Antonia Chayes, notables in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  Sarah babysat for our kids.  I'd lost track of her.  Here's what the Globe says: "Sarah Chayes, who runs a farming cooperative in southern Afghanistan and advises General David McKiernan, the commander of US and NATO forces, said in an e-mail that she was relieved by the new emphasis.  'There's been a lot of pressure on President Obama from a lot of quarters to think small.  But thinking small is exactly what happened to Afghanistan since 2002, and the result has been vastly expanded sanctuaries for extremists'."   In an op-ed in Friday's Los Angeles Times she makes this argument fully.