Democrats Have Long Called Afghanistan ‘the Central Front.' Will they retreat from it?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

FOR YEARS, Democrats excoriated the Bush administration for not devoting sufficient resources to Afghanistan. But now that Barack Obama has taken office, some seem to be having second thoughts. "Our original goal was to go in there and take on al-Qaeda. . . . It was not to adopt the 51st state of the United States," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Kerry pioneered the Democratic argument to send more troops during his own presidential campaign in 2004. Now he says "the parallels" to Vietnam "just really keep leaping out in so many different ways."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates seconded that skepticism at a congressional hearing on Tuesday. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," he said, "because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money, to be honest."

We're happy to agree that Afghanistan should not become the 51st state, or Valhalla -- but we're not sure who or what Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gates have in mind. So far as we know, the American objective in Afghanistan since 2002 has been pretty much what Mr. Gates says it should be: "an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, who reject the rule of the Taliban and support the legitimate government they have elected and in which they have a stake."

The problem, as Mr. Gates acknowledged, is that meeting that aim necessitates such tasks as stabilizing western Pakistan, rooting out the opium trade, vastly expanding the Afghan army and constructing a workable legal system. That, in turn, will require more money, more troops, many more years of commitment -- and higher American casualties.

"Bottom line is, it's going to be tough, it's going to be difficult, in many ways harder than Iraq," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) put it to Mr. Gates. "Do you agree with that?" "Yes," the secretary responded.

So why make it sound as if the Obama administration is scaling back U.S. ambitions? Part of this may be pure politics, to assure the antiwar left -- not to mention other Americans -- that the United States is not about to follow Russia and Britain into an Afghan quagmire. Yet the new administration, and supporters such as Mr. Kerry, ought to recognize a greater political need, which is to make clear to the country that the war against terrorism -- whatever it is now called -- did not end on Jan. 20 and that Afghanistan in particular will require years more patience and sacrifice to get right.

The way to avoid a quagmire is not to hold back on U.S. military reinforcements or development aid but to assemble a national civil-military plan that integrates war-fighting with reconstruction and political reconciliation. As Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) points out, such a plan was the foundation of the U.S. recovery in Iraq, but the model has never been applied in Afghanistan. That's largely because the United States must share authority with some 40 allies, many of which place strict limits on what their troops may do, insist on managing their own development programs, or both. The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, mired in corruption and increasingly at odds with U.S. commanders, is also not on board.

Afghanistan doesn't need to become the 51st state, but it does need a single, coherent, integrated plan to become a state strong enough to resist the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Creating one will require some aggressive diplomacy and maybe a little political china-breaking. That's something for which the State Department's new envoy to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, is known. But low-balling the scale of the challenge, or the costs it may incur, won't help.


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