Fred Hiatt: Obama's War and the Risks of Realism

By Fred Hiatt
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Even while sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan last week, the Obama administration was signaling a new modesty of American intentions there.

Top-level reviews are focusing on "clear and attainable goals," senior officials say. Vice President Biden recently defined the U.S. objective as "a stable Afghanistan that is not a haven for terrorists." A return to original purposes, in other words: No more talk of democracy and nation-building. No paeans to the little girls who once again can go to school. We are not, it is said again and again, going to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland.

Well, that is a safe promise. But what does it actually mean? A seemingly hardheaded turn to "realism" in Afghanistan may be riskier than it sounds.

President Obama's insistence on a thorough review of the mission is well-founded. Six years after Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed the war essentially over, conditions in large swaths of the country are worsening year by year. Something, many things, obviously need fixing.

But is Obama really contemplating a less ambitious mission? Pretty much everyone agrees that if you want to deny al-Qaeda a haven, you have to defeat or defuse the Taliban. That requires whittling away at the opium fields and narco-trafficking that fuel the insurgency. They won't diminish until farmers and traders have other, more legitimate opportunities. Such opportunities won't emerge unless there is a taming of the nation's virulent corruption. For that, you need to train police, encourage the rule of law, and build roads and other infrastructure. You need improved governance. Pretty soon, you are back to nation-building.

Without using that phrase, Central Command chief David Petraeus, the general who oversees the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, acknowledged the breadth of the task in a recent talk at a conference in Munich. In addition to more intense combat efforts, he said, "a surge in civilian capacity is needed . . . to help our Afghan partners expand their capabilities in key governmental areas, to support basic economic development and to assist in the development of various important aspects of the rule of law, including initiatives to support the development of police and various judicial initiatives."

If you're engaged in nation-building, are there reasons not to say so? Well, yes, there might be. At a time of economic implosion, the nation can hardly afford, and Americans rightly will not support, highflying adventures overseas. Many are tired of what they saw as President George W. Bush's overreaching; that certainly applies to Democrats in Congress, and to plenty of Republicans, too, who only pretended to join in Bush's post-election conversion to an activist foreign policy. Allied leaders, many of whom fancy themselves above naive American pretensions to spread freedom to backward nations, welcome what they see as a return to reality.

But there are risks in such a public relations strategy, and not only that you may fool yourself into believing that the job is not so hard. The bedrock requirement for defeating the Taliban is the support of the Afghan people -- their continued belief, even as civilians get killed and war drags on, that our fight is their fight; that our enemy is their enemy; that foreign troops are helpmates, not occupiers. Is such support likelier if we acknowledge that we are hoping to help them achieve a better life -- or if we say we are roaming their country only to protect ourselves from another Sept. 11?

It's a question for the home front, too. The volunteer soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen we're asking to carry on this fight, the many civilians Petraeus hopes will join in and all their families -- they want to know that they are sacrificing, above all, to protect the United States. But for many, there is also pride in knowing that, like generations before them, they are fighting to bring a chance of liberty and prosperity to an unlikely corner of the world.

History and Bush have handed nothing easy to Obama, and Afghanistan is no exception. He knew he would be criticized for sending reinforcements before his strategy review was complete, but he also knew it was the right thing to do: The troops were needed to stem a worsening security situation, to prepare for upcoming elections, to demonstrate to U.S. friends in Afghanistan and Pakistan that he was not preparing to retreat.

Now he will ask Americans to recommit to a war they've already had enough of, knowing that after seven years we are in some ways only getting started. It's an unenviable task, and convincing Americans that the mission is essential for their security will be at its heart. But wherever Americans are helping to defeat the forces of intolerance, they are also widening the pockets where people can prosper and live freely. At some point, if we are spreading freedom, we might as well admit it.

Fred Hiatt is editor of The Post's editorial page.

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