Afghanistan: Obama’s Iraq?

In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai is barely clinging to power and most of the country is controlled by the Taliban and at least 13 other Islamic insurgent groups. Will Afghanistan become a quagmire that defines Barack Obama's presidency?

Barack Obama may not have started the war in Afghanistan, said Michael Crowley in The New Republic, but that doesn’t mean it can’t become the quagmire that defines his presidency. For years, the president-elect and his fellow Democrats have been contrasting our “righteous fight” against the Taliban and al Qaida with the “moral and strategic catastrophe” unfolding in Iraq, coupling every “call for withdrawal from Iraq with a call for escalation in Afghanistan.” Now, however, with Afghanistan’s Westernized leader, Hamid Karzai, barely clinging to power, and with most of the country controlled by the resurgent Taliban and at least 13 other Islamic insurgent groups, Obama may be wondering if Afghanistan is the “good war” he thought it was.

At the very least, said Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation, Obama will have to rethink his campaign pledge to send two or three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. To restore even a modicum of stability, experts say, the U.S. and NATO will have to send an additional 200,000 troops. Then, if Obama wants to honor his promise to “crush al Qaida” and find Osama bin Laden, he’ll have to mount raids into nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the situation “is only slightly less dire than in Afghanistan.” And since Obama has pledged not to practice Bush-like unilateralism, said Lakhdar Brahimi in The Washington Post, he’ll need to get any plan pre-approved by the Afghan government, our NATO allies, and the U.N. Security Council. “It will not be easy for so many to agree on a meaningful strategy.”

True, said Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, but therein lies Obama’s great opportunity. Our problems in Afghanistan are the same ones facing every civilized nation. How do you stabilize a failed state, as Afghanistan was before the Taliban took it over, and arguably is again now? Can a nation of hostile sects—such as Afghanistan’s Pashtuns and Hazaras, or Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites—get by with a single democratic government, or is partition the way to go? From the day he takes office, Obama will be a figure of unique global stature and influence. If he is both bold in his use of American power and genuine in trying to factor in other countries’ perspectives, he could craft a “new set of ideas and institutions” with which the nations of the world can tackle the complex problems of the 21st century. From that perspective, at least, Afghanistan is the perfect place to start.

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