On Afghanistan, Obama is a prisoner

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 6, 2009

President Obama's expansion of the war in Afghanistan meets the tests of strategic necessity abroad and political equilibrium at home. He can reasonably hope that his surge will buy time for things to improve, particularly in Pakistan, the war's vital theater.

But even the dispatch of 30,000 new U.S. troops to Afghanistan does not buy the president the power to change things there on his own. He is still the prisoner of context, an area he neglected in explaining his revised Afghan strategy last week.

Obama fights the invisible enemies of time and distance as well as the fanatics of al-Qaeda. Polls show falling support for the war, which can only reflect a lessening of the grip that the memory of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, exerts on Americans.

Many of us experience this lessening, I suspect, even if we resist it. As I walked along the Potomac on a sparkling recent November morning, a familiar double-edged thought occurred to me: The sky is as clear as it was Sept. 11. Will a new horror befall us on another such day? Then I realized I had been walking for 10 minutes before that chilling specter arrived.

For a long time, the first glimpse or two of a pristine cloudless sky over the Federal City would take me instantly back to the day that shaped the rest of the decade. Now, memory takes its own time to appear, becoming more a matter of reflection than reflex. We adjust even to this, I think unhappily.

Einstein suggested that the splitting of the atom changed everything except the way we think. Perhaps the same will be true of Sept. 11. In his speech, the president recognized the challenge presented to his policies by the passage of time:

"It's easy to forget that when this war began, we were united -- bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack. . . . I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again."

But his speech did not immediately have that unifying effect. Most members of Congress quickly found points on which to disagree and, while not attacking Obama, take self-protective distance from the president's surge. Politically, Obama got away with selling a new strategy that deserves to be tried -- for a while.

He also received modest support from NATO, led by Italy's contribution of 1,000 new soldiers and new Polish and British deployments. But Germany stalled, and France said that it could not spare any more of its overstretched forces. Left unsaid was the fact that President Nicolas Sarkozy is in no mood to do Obama favors after a series of ill-advised rebuffs by the U.S. leader to the Frenchman, who went out of his way to help Obama during the 2008 U.S. campaign.

More significantly, Sarkozy is increasingly concerned about the "Americanization" of the war in Afghanistan. The new influx of GIs will compound command-and-control problems for the other foreign units and make them even more dependent on American tactics and strategy.

That is part of the context that Obama's new strategy does not directly address. An even more striking omission Tuesday night was any in-depth discussion of the civilian surge that is supposed to accompany the military buildup and provide improved living conditions and better governance.

The subject was minimized, I suspect, because there is not yet agreement among the president's advisers or NATO members on how the present ineffective flow of financial aid and technical support from abroad for President Hamid Karzai's government should be reorganized.

Progress has been made on establishing an international watchdog agency in Kabul to fight corruption. But there are strong head winds from Europe against administration suggestions that one strong U.S.-led authority should now take charge of and coordinate civilian programs, including those of the United Nations, in Afghanistan.

Finally, the president's new strategy fails to emphasize that the context of the events of Sept. 11 endures, and constrains his actions, even as the force of that day's events fades.

It is a context of Islamic extremism nurtured not only in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan but also in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and other countries that the United States finds impossible to invade or strike. We are condemned to fight al-Qaeda on the ground in Afghanistan with greater and greater force because we cannot fight it directly on the battlefield elsewhere. Welcome to Obama's Catch-22.


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