Finally—a “realistic” policy for Afghanistan, said The Washington Post in an editorial. Ever since the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001, the West has been trying to eliminate the country’s Islamic radicals and turn the primitive land into a functioning democracy. “The strategy failed,” with al Qaida and the Taliban regrouping in border regions and in Pakistan, launching deadly raids on U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians, and destabilizing the central government. But last week, President Obama outlined a new approach for taking the fight to the Taliban that’s both “bold” and “conservative.” He approved sending an additional 21,000 U.S. troops and hundreds of civilian advisors—but not out of some “starry-eyed” hope of converting Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy. Instead, Obama outlined a more narrowly focused goal—to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” the insurgents. “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, or allows al Qaida to go unchallenged,” Obama warned, “the country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

What’s most impressive about this plan, said Trudy Rubin in The Philadelphia Inquirer, is that it’s “comprehensive,” treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as two sides of the same entity—“AfPak.” The U.S. will no longer give Pakistan “a blank check” of billions in aid, Obama said; in return for economic support, we will require that Pakistan take action against Taliban and al Qaida encampments, and eliminate the rogue elements in Pakistan’s intelligence services who are helping the militants. If Pakistan doesn’t act forcefully, Obama said, U.S. drones and fighter planes may step up attacks on known militant leaders inside its borders. To stabilize Afghanistan, the U.S. will send hundreds more civilian experts to teach farmers how to grow crops other than opium, and more military trainers to double the size of Afghanistan’s army and police forces to more than 250,000 men. Will it work? The administration’s “ability to grasp the full complexity of the challenge” at least offers some hope.

What Obama is really offering here, said Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation, is just another decade or more of being stuck in Afghanistan. Cleaning the Taliban and al Qaida out of remote border regions will be impossible. Besides, neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan is in any real danger of falling to these Islamic radicals, said Juan Cole in The Afghan army numbers 80,000, while Taliban fighters are estimated at 15,000, at most. In Pakistan, “a few thousand Pashtun tribesmen” loyal to the Taliban cannot take over a country in which 75 percent of the population is clamoring for more democracy—not sharia law. Obama has fallen prey to the same al Qaida “domino theory” that led George Bush astray.

That kind of cynicism will present Obama’s Afghanistan plan with its greatest challenge, said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. The Left also insisted that Iraq’s surge couldn’t possibly work, and the U.S. didn’t give up there, only because President Bush ignored a loud chorus of critics. The U.S. can defeat insurgents in Afghanistan and create a competent national government through a painstaking counterinsurgency strategy in which U.S. troops hunt down Islamic extremists and force them to fight or flee. But that will mean many months of tough combat, rising U.S. casualties, and cries of “Vietnam!” from Obama’s liberal base. Can he stand up to that kind of criticism? “He’d do well to note a crucial element of the surge in Iraq—a president with a stomach of steel.”