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The regional stakes facing the U.S. long after the Afghan war

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By Robin Wright
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Oddly, President Obama's West Point speech never probed the critical long-term stakes for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three issues central to the outcome should enter the public debate as his strategy is launched.

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The first is America's place in the world in the 21st century. Officials from Moscow to Beijing, from Iran's revolutionaries to Somalia's pirates, will scrutinize this last-ditch U.S. effort -- and weigh their actions, reactions and interactions with the United States on how Obama's effort fares.

Failure by the world's mightiest military power, backed by the largest military alliance, to uproot the Taliban -- a force without an air force, armored corps, long-range artillery, satellite intelligence or powerful foreign backer -- would vividly illustrate the limits of U.S. power. The consequences could dwarf those of the defeat in Vietnam, even if the loss of life was smaller.

The era of a unipolar or uni-power world is effectively over, but a U.S. failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan could mark its formal end, just as it did for the bipolar world when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. Indeed, the period from Vietnam to Afghanistan -- with withdrawals under pressure from Hezbollah extremists in Lebanon and warlords in Somalia along the way -- could come to be seen as the period marking the demise of American power.

And not just "gun" power. At its core, American power is also supposed to be about moral power -- using might to confront, contain or prevent fascist, totalitarian or unjust regimes from unacceptable aggression, repression or injustice. American power has been abused. Neither party has clean hands. But few other nations have been willing or able to assume that role.

U.S. standing in the Islamic world is also at stake. The historic rule of thumb is that winners have influence; losers don't. Winners get to set standards. Their ideas get more attention. Their leaders gain greater authority.

And the outcome of the U.S. confrontation with various branches of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is pivotal to the future of the Islamic world. Almost a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Muslim world is at a crossroads. Polls show key Muslim societies are increasingly rejecting extremism -- even if respondents are still not enamored of the United States. Vast numbers of Muslims now recognize that Bin Ladenism can't provide answers to everyday challenges such as education, housing, jobs and health care. There's an air of fatigue about al-Qaeda; it's becoming somewhat passé. The search is on for something better.

U.S. strategy in South Asia is now based not only on defeat of the forces behind the Sept. 11 attacks; it's also designed to help build credible alternatives to extremist ideologies and governance. Winning on this front in Pakistan and Afghanistan is as important -- and potentially harder -- than the military campaign. The winner is likely to have greater sway among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. And "winner" means not so much the United States as the principles, such as more accountable government, modern education and economic opportunity from legitimate trades.

Finally, U.S. interests in the wider region are also at stake, notably on two fronts.

Obama's strategy will deeply affect India, the world's largest democracy. Long-standing tensions between Pakistan and India have taken the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than any conflict has since World War II -- and still could, since Pakistan has failed to contain extremists responsible for terrorist atrocities in India, including the Mumbai attacks last year. U.S. failure to help nuclear Pakistan expand or shift its military focus from India to the more immediate threat from its internal extremists risks allowing those tensions to deepen.

Just as worrisome are the stakes with Iran, which borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become for Iran what Iraq once was: a surrogate battlefield with the United States. Once Afghanistan's rival, Shiite-dominated Iran has reportedly supplied the same weapons and explosives to Sunni Taliban fighters that it provided Shiite militias in Iraq, on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend -- at least for now.

Iran manipulated (and often fueled) the problems that ensued after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the process, it has become a regional superpower rivaled only by Israel. U.S. failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan would further strengthen Iran's position as its increasingly authoritarian government cracks down on a legitimate opposition movement and threatens to expand its nuclear program.

Many Americans are tired of the war in Afghanistan. We're alarmed at the cost in human life to all sides, the drain on our national treasury and armed forces -- not to mention on the Afghan people -- and the length of this conflict. We have doubts that the fast-paced initiative Obama has proposed will work. But as U.S. actions are evaluated over the next 18 months, we should remember that the outcome will determine America's goals and standing far beyond the South Asian theater for years to come.

Robin Wright is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." A former diplomatic correspondent for The Post, she has reported on Afghanistan since the 1980s.


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