Making the case for success in Afghanistan

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

NO ONE UNDERSTANDS more clearly than Gen. David H. Petraeus how frustrating it is to many Americans to hear that the United States is in "the early stages" of its counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.

After all, as he told Post associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran in an interview Friday, "We're keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years. We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters."

But Gen. Petraeus also made clear that for many of those years, U.S. forces and their allies did not have the resources they needed to fight al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies. Only during the past 18 months, he said, have the right strategy, structures and people been put in place. And starting in late spring, the general said, the new commitment began to yield signs of progress.

That was one message Gen. Petraeus sought to deliver in interviews over the past few days: The mission isn't hopeless. Another, though, was that success won't be easy and that it won't come in one defining battlefield victory. It will be measured in the gradual strengthening of the ability of Afghanistan's elected government to provide security for its own people. As the general told David Gregory on NBC's "Meet the Press," success is "going to require a substantial, significant commitment and . . . it is going to have to be enduring to some degree, again, albeit its character and its size being scaled down over the years."

This is an appropriate message for the general to deliver, but he shouldn't have to do it alone. President Obama conducted not one but two strategic reviews of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan during his first year in office. Both came to the same conclusion: The United States cannot afford to allow that country to again become a haven for Islamic extremism. Mr. Obama also concluded that defeat in Afghanistan would have terrible effects in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state where Islamist extremists also pose a threat. Mr. Obama said he would begin a transition next July in which Afghan forces picked up more of the fighting from American troops. But he made clear that American forces would not leave Afghanistan at that time. The only safe exit strategy, as his reviews concluded, will be one built on success -- and that will require years of commitment, as Gen. Petraeus said.

Having formed his policy and committed the U.S. troops needed to implement it, Mr. Obama needs to explain his rationale to the American people, especially to the many doubters within his own party. He needs to do so not once, not twice, but repeatedly. This isn't Gen. Petraeus's war, and it's not even Mr. Obama's war. It is America's war -- and ultimately, only the president can make that case.

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