Speaking Wednesday to the British Parliament in Westminster Hall, President Obama promised to turn a corner in Afghanistan and yield the anti-Taliban struggle to Afghan leadership.
His message will be welcomed by a British government that is visibly weary of a protracted, inconclusive struggle, particularly one occupying 10,000 British troops, as well as 2,500 Canadians and 1,500 Australians alongside 100,000 Americans.
Of all Barack Obama's problems, Afghanistan is the most self-inflicted.
Throughout the 2008, Obama insisted that Afghanistan was the central front in the war on terror. He committed himself to a big intensification of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. After winning election, he ordered a surge of American soldiers into the country.
This surge succeeded in stabilizing the deteriorating military situation, at least for the time being.
Apart from that, however, we remain more or less where we were: Fighting a war in a country that almost defines strategic unimportance, with very few prospects of success.
Indeed the most important strategic consequence of the Afghan surge may have been to intensify U.S. dependence on Pakistan.
The Pakistani role in Afghanistan is so bizarre that even after you say it aloud, it seems impossible:
Without Pakistan's support, the U.S.-led coalition could not continue its war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Without Pakistan’s support, the Taliban could not continue its war against the U.S.-led coalition.
Pakistan is simultaneously the most important ally of both sides to this conflict.
President Obama explains the U.S. war aim as preventing Afghanistan from ever again offering a safe haven to terrorists. But the terrorists that most concern Americans all found their safe haven in Pakistan: That's where Osama bin Laden was killed, and where Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was apprehended, and it is surely where Mullah Omar is hiding now.
True, sometimes the Pakistanis help the U.S. apprehend these terrorists, as they did with KSM.
Other times, the Pakistanis are less energetic, as with bin Laden.
The United States finds itself smiling and nodding and accepting Pakistan's two-faced policy. What else can we do — especially after President Obama inserted an additional 80,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan as hostages in all but name to Pakistan's vagaries?
The troop withdrawal the president promised in Westminster may ameliorate the situation. But why did we find ourselves in this situation in the first place?
Unfortunately, the answer is found much more in Barack Obama's political needs of 2008 — the need to find a war to support to balance his opposition to the much more important war in Iraq — than in Obama's reading of America's strategic position in the world.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- How to adopt the perfect rescue dog
- Why the poor can't catch a break on Thanksgiving
- This judge is the reason we're still fighting over net neutrality
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
- Ferguson riots were terrible — but this racist reaction was worse
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The lessons of Japan's latest recession
Subscribe to the Week