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Obama vs. Osama

Has he picked the right war?

Around the time of the November election, John Nagl, a retired Army Colonel, took a helicopter ride across Afghanistan. What he saw below worried him. Nagl, who is 42 with trim brown hair and academic eyeglasses, spent three years in Iraq, including as part of a tank battalion in the Sunni Triangle, where he witnessed brutal combat in the war's worst years. A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Nagl applied the lessons of his Iraq experience to the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which he helped write and which was published last year. He currently specializes in the study of war and counterinsurgency at the Center for a New American Security, a center-left Washington think tank, and it is in this capacity that he recently traveled to the Afghan war zone. As his military chopper swooped over high mountain ridges and plunging valleys, he grimly surveyed the size and the inhospitality of the Afghan terrain. Winning in Afghanistan, he realized, would take more than "a little tweak," as he put it to me from back in Washington a few weeks later, when he was still shaking off the gritty "Kabul crud" that afflicts traveler's lungs. It would take time, money, and blood. "It's a doubling of the U.S. commitment," Nagl said. "It's a doubling of the Afghan army, maybe a tripling. It's going to require a tax increase and a bigger army."

For the left in the Bush era, America's two wars have long been divided into the good and the bad. Iraq was the moral and strategic catastrophe, while Afghanistan--home base for the September 11 attacks--was a righteous fight. This dichotomy was especially appealing to liberals because it allowed them to pair their call for withdrawal from Iraq with a call for escalation in Afghanistan. Leaving Iraq wasn't about retreating; it was about bolstering another front, one where our true strategic interests lie. The left could meet conservative charges of defeatism with the rhetoric of victory. Barack Obama is now getting ready to turn this idea into policy. He has already called for sending an additional two U.S. brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops, to the country and may wind up proposing a much larger escalation in what candidate Obama has called "the war we need to win."

But, as Nagl understands at the ground level, winning in Afghanistan will take more than just shifting a couple of brigades from the bad war to the good one. Securing Afghanistan--and preserving a government and society we can be proud of--is vastly more challenging than the rhetoric of the campaign has suggested. Taliban fighters are bolder and crueler than ever--beheading dozens of men at a time, blasting the capital with car bombs, killing NATO troops with sniper fire and roadside explosives. Meanwhile, the recent savagery in Mumbai has India and Pakistan at each other's throats again, a development that indirectly benefits Afghan insurgents.

The challenge of exiting Iraq was supposed to be the first great foreign policy test of Obama's presidency. But it is Afghanistan that now looms as the potential quagmire. Winning the good war will, at a minimum, require the most sophisticated counterinsurgency techniques developed by Nagl and his colleagues, which take enormous resources. But, even then, it's not at all clear what victory looks like, or whether it's even possible in a country known as the graveyard of empires. All of which raises the question of how much longer Afghanistan really can be considered the good war.

On November 12, while Nagl was touring Afghanistan, two men on a motorcycle pulled up to a group of teenage schoolgirls in the southern city of Kandahar. Using a child's water pistol, one of the men sprayed three girls in the face--the squirt gun was loaded not with water but with battery acid--leaving them disfigured. The girls' apparent sin was that they were attending school--a violation of the Taliban's medieval sharia law.

That America's October 2001 invasion failed to impose peace and stability is not exactly a surprise. Afghanistan is like a Chinese finger trap: The harder you try to solve it, the more it constricts you. Ask the Russians. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent military forces to install a pro-Soviet government in Kabul. At its peak in the country, the Red Army numbered some 140,000. But, after ten years of inconclusive fighting, 15,000 dead, and tens of thousands more wounded, the battered Soviets mounted a humiliating retreat--one that probably helped speed the collapse of their empire. ("They've already repeated all of our mistakes," one former Soviet general from the Afghan campaign recently said to The New York Times of the U.S. occupation.) Or ask the British. More than a century earlier, the United Kingdom dispatched a huge army to Afghanistan from India to secure it against Russian influence. That adventure, too, was a disaster, ending in a retreat of 16,500 troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Only one survivor made it--his life spared by the Afghans so he could recount the ghastly tale for others.

From the beginning, experts with this historical perspective in mind warned that crushing the Taliban was impossible: "No matter how successful the U.S. campaign is," wrote the Council on Foreign Relations's Kimberly Marten Zisk in November 2001, "never will all the rebels defect to the winning side. The rebels who are left will not stop fighting, no matter how hard conditions get." The past seven years have made those words look prescient. Today, the Taliban is as bold--and as brutal--as it has been since the United States first drove it from power. The Pashtun Islamic radicals who controlled the country from 1996 to 2001, and provided safe harbor to Osama bin Laden before September 11, have found sanctuary and regrouped just across Afghanistan's eastern border, in Pakistan's self-governing northwestern tribal areas.

John Nagl knows something about how to fight insurgencies like this. As a student at West Point, he studied the communist revolt against British occupiers in Malaya in the 1950s and the doomed U.S. adventure in Vietnam. His doctoral thesis was subtitled, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife"--a phrase coined by T.E. Lawrence to describe the challenge facing the Ottoman Turks battling Arab rebellions. One of the central points of the counterinsurgency doctrine studied by Nagl is that brute force is counterproductive. "Insurgencies are ultimately defeated not by killing or capturing every insurgent but by changing peoples' minds," he says. That requires the use of economic and political power as well as military force. It also requires manpower. Lots of it. "To defeat an insurgency," he says, "you have to provide security to the population on the ground."

Nagl's rule of thumb, the one found in the counterinsurgency manual, calls for at least a 1-to-50 ratio of security forces to civilians in contested areas. Applied to Afghanistan, which has both a bigger population (32 million) and a larger land mass (647,500 square miles) than Iraq, that gets you to some large numbers fast. Right now, the United States and its allies have some 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, as compared to about 140,000 in Iraq. By Nagl's ratio, Afghanistan's population calls for more than 600,000 security forces. Even adjusting for the relative stability of large swaths of the country, the ideal number could still total around 300,000--more than a quadrupling of current troop levels. Eventually, Afghanistan's national army could shoulder most of that burden. But, right now, those forces number a ragtag 60,000, a figure Nagl believes will need to at least double and maybe triple. Standing up a force of that size, as the example of Iraq has shown us, will take several years and consume billions of U.S. dollars.

For Obama, winning support for such an enterprise won't be simple. Despite the feel-good consensus of the campaign that Afghanistan is a noble, must-win cause, he'll be under pressure from multiple fronts to scale back America's ambitions. American public opinion, for starters, is already beginning to sour on the war. In August, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 34 percent of Americans think the United States "made a mistake" in sending military forces to Afghanistan. That's up nine points from a year ago. (In early 2002, just 6 percent of respondents agreed with that statement.) Another poll, conducted in early September poll by GfK Roper Public Affairs, found that 41 percent oppose sending more troops. And a July ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 45 percent believe the war's costs have not been worth its benefits--and, moreover, that defeating global terrorism does not require victory over the Taliban. "People can't quite get back to why we're in Afghanistan," acknowledges Democratic Representative Ellen Tauscher of California, a foreign-affairs specialist who recently visited the country.

Obama may face particular resistance from his left flank. Many liberal doves were never thrilled by the original invasion of Afghanistan but muted their criticism to devote their energies to decrying the Iraq war. But, now that there is consensus that the Iraq war was a mistake, there is growing vocal discontent from these quarters on Afghanistan as well. The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, recently argued, for instance, that "it is troubling" that Obama "continues to talk about escalating the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan." In an essay also published by The Nation, Tariq Ali referred to the mission there as "Operation Enduring Disaster."

Nor is the military so gung ho about another long fight with evasive insurgents. A major drawdown from Iraq will theoretically free up the forces for a big escalation in Afghanistan. But, in reality, the military badly needs a rest: "What I see happening is literally every soldier who is withdrawn from Iraq is going to end up in Afghanistan," says Nagl. "And, frankly, the ground forces of our great nation were looking forward to a bit of a break."

Conservative and centrist critics of a calendar-based Iraq withdrawal may support that thinking. These people see a zero-sum contest for resources between Iraq and Afghanistan. Their fear--and expectation--is that Iraq is not yet ready to stand on its own, and that a U.S. withdrawal along Obama's stated timeline of roughly 16 months will lead to new instability--requiring a pause in the exit plan. "My fear is that this desire to shift troops over to Afghanistan is going to screw things up in Iraq, and, at the end of the day, Iraq is more important," says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution.

Finally, some of America's key allies may balk at a greater sacrifice, even for the "good war." While Obamamania swept across Europe this fall, resulting in massive crowds and swooning heads of state, it remains to be seen whether Obama's powers of persuasion can reverse public opinion abroad. According to a mid-November poll, more than two-thirds of Britons want their 8,000 troops out of the country within a year. In August, Al Qaeda killed ten French peacekeepers (four were captured and skinned alive, according to The Daily Telegraph). The country's worst military loss in 25 years, the massacre has contributed to majority opposition to the war. In Canada, which supplies about 2,500 troops (and has lost 98 since 2002), one recent poll showed that 59 percent of the population opposes extending its mission beyond 2009.

Clearly, doing counterinsurgency right, in the way that Nagl envisions, will require Obama to make a new and impassioned case for saving Afghanistan. He will have to remind Americans just why it is their sons and daughters are fighting and dying in godforsaken mountain passes and poppy fields. Tauscher hopes Obama can rally the nation around this cause. "I think we're all counting on President-elect Obama's significant oration skills and his vision as commander-in-chief of what's in the American national security interest," she says. But the trouble is that the question of what, exactly, is in the American interest in Afghanistan remains extremely murky.

On May 23, 2005 George W. Bush welcomed Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai to Washington. As the two leaders met the press in the White House's East Room, Bush praised his counterpart as a beacon of freedom and democracy. "I am honored to stand by the first democratically elected leader in the five- thousand-year history of Afghanistan. Congratulations," Bush rhapsodized.

Afghanistan earned its status as the "good war" not just because it was a direct response to the September 11 attacks, but because--unlike in Iraq--it quickly produced an affable, Westernized leader who was the product of a democratic process. But times have changed. Public disapproval among Afghans of Karzai's weak and corruption-rife government has doubled in the past year, according to a summer poll by the Asia Foundation. Karzai himself is now viewed as ineffectual, corrupt, or both. His brother has been implicated in heroin trafficking on a massive scale. And, now, the West is considering its alternatives. According to a leaked diplomatic cable recently published by a French newspaper, the British ambassador to Afghanistan has declared the country in "crisis," and thinks the "realistic" solution is the installation of "an acceptable dictator." For many Afghanistan-watchers, such an outcome would be no surprise. "I can only laugh" at Bush's dreams of democracy, says Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's in our bones as Americans to think that we can democratize those societies. It's a vast cultural ignorance."

Barack Obama may well agree. When talking about the importance of Afghanistan, he does so in strategic, not moral, terms. Gone is Bush's swooning rhetoric of democracy and human rights. To hear Obama tell it, Afghanistan is the "central front" against terrorists, and possibly the place where Osama bin Laden can be found. In July, Obama told a McClatchy reporter that America's goals in the country should be "relatively modest," adding that "[o]ur critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region."

But even this "relatively modest" goal necessitates that Obama weigh in on some morally complex--and interrelated--questions. One is whether a weakened Karzai is more of a hindrance to the goal of stamping out insurgents than an asset. With Afghanistan due to hold a national election in late 2009, some regional experts believe that Obama should pull the plug on the increasingly unpopular and ineffective leader. "I think Karzai should get the boot," says Marvin Weinbaum, a regional expert and former Clinton and Bush State Department official now with the Middle East Institute. "As long as he's around, there can't be anything in the way of a fresh start." Even if Obama agrees with this assessment--and judging from the fact that he waited nearly three weeks after the election to speak to Karzai, he may well--he faces the problem of finding a credible alternative.

Another question is whether to strike a deal with the Taliban. Almost everyone who looks hard at Afghanistan concludes that some kind of political settlement will be required to end the stubborn insurgency. General David Petraeus, fresh from his apparent success in Iraq and now commander of Central Command, is shifting his focus to Afghanistan and the question of whether it's possible to negotiate with moderate elements of the Taliban in hopes of replicating something like Iraq's Sunni Awakening, which co-opted Sunni tribes in Anbar province and turned them against Al Qaeda.

Easier said than done. The Sunnis turned against Al Qaeda because they were foreign interlopers--whereas the Taliban are largely drawn from Afghanistan's native Pashtun population. Indeed, when Karzai recently offered safe passage to negotiations for the one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar, he was rewarded with mockery by a Taliban spokesman who said the mullah was plenty safe already and moreover quite pleased with the current state of affairs.

It's also not clear who the United States should be talking to. A recent report by the Center for American Progress names six major Islamic insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan--including not just the Taliban and Al Qaeda but a colorful cast of characters, such as the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan; the so-called "Haqqani Network," which recently tried to kill Karzai; and Hezb-i- Islami Gulbuddin, followers of the rapacious Afghan warlord and former bin Laden ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who once declared that, because a million Afghans had already died in civil wars there, he saw no great problem with another million perishing. The Taliban itself consists of numerous tribally oriented splinter groups with various leaders and motivations--some little more than criminal gangs who may be willing to cooperate with the United States for the right price. But the group's core leadership is not the deal-making kind. "When I was at the State Department, we had some dealings with [the Omar-led Taliban], and it always came down to 'We've got time and Allah on our side,'" says Weinbaum.

If Taliban leaders were to accept a deal, it would probably involve granting them real power. "We have to begin to think about the possibility of the Taliban in some fashion coming back to power," says Gelb. Deterrence--the threat of a massive post-September-11-like retaliation for any terror attack originating from the country--could prevent Al Qaeda from setting up shop again, Gelb argues.

But could Obama--could the United States--stomach what would be essentially reinstalling the Taliban to power? A central moral element of the "good war" was the liberation of millions of Afghan women subject to the Taliban's harsh sharia law, which prevented girls from being educated, chopped off fingers with painted nails, and stoned women for adultery and executed others at midfield of a newly-constructed soccer stadium in front of thousands. Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, in November 2001, Hillary Clinton, soon to be Obama's woman at Foggy Bottom and a key voice in the Afghanistan debate, penned a Time essay arguing against the notion that imposing Western values there amounted to "cultural imperialism." "Women's rights are human rights," Clinton wrote. "They are not simply American, or western customs."

Stirring words, to be sure. But the day may come when cutting deals in Afghanistan means consigning some women, if not to the brutal life of the high Taliban era, to strict Islamic rules sure to offend the likes of Hillary Clinton. It may well be, in other words, that America's moral and strategic interests are beginning to diverge in Afghanistan in a way that supporters of the "good war" may not yet appreciate.

Sometime after midnight on Saturday, November 22, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone slipped through the skies of Pakistan's North Waziristan province and hovered above the small town of Ali Khel. In an instant, three Hellfire missiles launched from the drone and rocketed at 950 miles per hour into a mud hut below. The explosions that lit up the night sky abruptly ended the life of Rashid Rauf, a British Islamic militant believed to have masterminded the 2006 Al Qaeda plot to blow up several transatlantic airliners. Two other senior Al Qaeda operatives were eliminated along with Rauf.

This was just one of the most successful in a recent series of Predator strikes at Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in the remote tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Although the Pakistani government privately winks at (but publicly denounces) the Predator strikes, it keeps these areas off-limits to NATO ground troops. And Pakistani forces have made largely halfhearted and ineffectual efforts to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders--perhaps including bin Laden himself--who hide in the region's mud houses and mountain caves.

The linchpin of Obama's case for escalating the war in Afghanistan is that, unlike Iraq, it's in our strategic interest. But, the closer you look at that premise, the blurrier it can get. The tale of Rauf's demise illustrates that our strategic interest may best be served by focusing on Pakistan. The inconvenient fact is that, since September 11, Pakistan, and not Afghanistan, has emerged as Al Qaeda's true home. "Al Qaeda isn't in Afghanistan, they're in Pakistan," says Kenneth Pollack. Pakistan offers the Taliban sanctuary, which in turn allows Taliban fighters to escape annihilation by NATO forces who can't chase them across the border. Adds Pollack: "It's clear that you cannot solve the problems of Afghanistan without solving Pakistan."

But "solving" Pakistan is an entirely different project than winning in Afghanistan. It is a matter of diplomacy and foreign aid, not large contingents of ground troops. It requires boosting the economy of a country now teetering near bankruptcy. And it entails, as Obama's team has acknowledged, a new push to soothe the extreme tensions between Islamic Pakistan and its Hindu rival, India. Hatred for India foments radicalism on the margins of Pakistani society. And it leads Pakistan's notorious intelligence services to provide support for the Taliban, which it sees as a buffer against creeping Indian influence within Afghanistan. This problem, of course, grew exponentially more confounding once the first shots rang out at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus last week and is unlikely to be solved by more American troops in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, it's quite possible that a major U.S. troop buildup in another Muslim nation is just what Al Qaeda wants. In mid-November, the senior Al Qaeda commander Ayman Al Zawahiri released a message for Barack Obama. In addition to slurring Obama as a "house negro" and gloating over the coming U.S. exit from Iraq, he said that Obama's plan to "pull your troops out of Iraq to send them to Afghanistan is a policy which was destined for failure before it was born." "[R]emember the fate of Bush and [former Pakistani President] Pervez Musharraf, and the fate of the Soviets and British before them. And be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them."

Yes, this was the ranting of a deranged terrorist. But, if the United States really does leave Iraq, Al Qaeda will turn Afghanistan into its next recruiting tool. (It's worth remembering that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan helped establish bin Laden's reputation.) Even among the Afghan people, sending foreign forces might simply have a backlash effect. "We run the risk that our military presence ... will gradually turn the Afghan population entirely against us," former national security adviser--and sometime Obama adviser--Zbigniew Brzezinski told the Financial Times this summer.

All of this raises the question of whether a major troop escalation is truly worth the costs. According to a recent Washington Post report, military planners are debating whether a smaller U.S. contingent, based around Special Forces and military trainers for Afghan security forces, and complemented by Predator drones, can achieve a reduced set of U.S. goals--namely, preventing Al Qaeda from reconstituting.

When I asked John Nagl about such a scenario, he bristled at the thought. Nagl still believes that Afghanistan is a good war for both moral and strategic reasons. "I think that, without a very substantial commitment to the government of Afghanistan, there's a very real chance that the Taliban returns to power there," he says. "I think that would not be good for the stability of the government of Pakistan. And I am personally unwilling to let a regime that throws acid in the faces of little girls who go to school take power."

But just because Afghanistan may be a good war doesn't mean it will be an easy one. Nagl warns that, in order to win, we need to approach the situation there with our eyes wide open. Obama will need to move beyond the rhetoric of the good war to convey to the American public the sacrifice and hard choices of war itself. "If resources are limited," Nagl says, then Obama should "mobilize the country"--increase the size of the military and even ask Americans to pay more through taxes. "How badly do we want to win this war to ensure that nobody can use this territory to kill three thousand Americans again?" he asks. "I'm willing to pay an extra dollar a gallon of gas for that to happen--who's with me?"

We'll soon find out. Nagl's instincts may be right. The case for rescuing Afghanistan with great military force and at vast expense may carry the day. No one can dispute that the world would be a better place if Afghanistan is peaceful, stable, and at least semi-democratic. But, as one painful war winds down and a deep recession strikes, it's unclear whether Americans are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. Ultimately Obama, and the United States, may find that the goodness of this war isn't good--or simple--enough.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.