Robert Shrum

Afghanistan has been a footnote in a presidential transition process celebrated for its daring, speed and sure-footed sense of direction. Obama has rightly focused on the troubled economy, consciously echoing the resolve of earlier presidents who faced recession or depression. The nation calls for “action—and action now,” he recently proclaimed, reviving a phrase from FDR’s first inaugural address that, initially, had commanded far more attention than the injunction that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Obama wants his presidency to be judged not by the mess he’s inheriting but by the measures he intends to take. His warning that things are “likely to get worse before they get better” echoes JFK’s 1961 State of the Union message: “There will be further setbacks before the tide is turned.” On election night, he told the country that the task would not be finished in “one year or one term”—another echo, this time of Kennedy’s inaugural statement that “all this will not be finished in the first 100 days nor . . . in the first 1000 days.”

I believe Obama, who appears to be as perceptive a student of past presidencies as he was of past campaigns, will achieve a Rooseveltian transformation in domestic policy. This will involve massive infrastructure investment, an energy revolution and health care reform—sweeping changes that, I predict, Republicans would pay a devastating price for opposing. Obama’s program is likely to prevail and Obama’s America is likely to be a different and renewed country. At his Sunday press conference, he offered a confident assertion that once his changes are in place, America will emerge from this crisis “leaner, meaner, and more prosperous.”

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There is less cause for confidence about Obama’s other crisis—the faltering war in Afghanistan. Indeed, Afghanistan has the potential to become what Iraq was for so long for Bush—a quagmire without exit. There is an emerging consensus on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and a redeployment of troops to Afghanistan. But for now the new troops will be deployed in provinces just outside Kabul to protect the increasingly threatened capital. This version of the “enclave strategy” once proposed for Vietnam is no more than a holding action. How can we rout the terrorists and the Taliban from mountain sanctuaries if our enemies control 80 percent of the country?

This is precisely the problem that faced the Soviet Union’s 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The point here is not moral equivalence; the problem is that today the United States and our allies don’t even approach numerical parity with the Soviets, who fought a scorched earth war without any of our self-imposed constraints. Even if we dispatch many more troops, intelligence analysts warn, we will never have enough to control the daunting Afghan geography, fertile ground for terrorists, warlords and poppy plants. In addition, we’re warned, heavier force levels and escalating violence will only add to the alienation of an already war-weary population.

Obama and his re-enlisted Secretary of Defense seem to comprehend this; Robert Gates already has a Pentagon review underway that looks beyond Bush’s discredited obsession with disproportionately military solutions. The new answer, or hope, is not just more troops, but “soft power.” Applied to Afghanistan, this means economic reconstruction, jobs, schools, credible regional government and more culturally sensitive uses of armed force. In other words, defeat the enemy by making friends.

The difficulty, of course, is that the enemy won’t cooperate; with truck bombings, suicide blasts and no holds barred they will counter soft power with intensified terrorism. If they succeed, what do we try next?

John Kerry may not have become Secretary of State, but he is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which in recent decades has lost its historic role of educating Americans about our challenges and options overseas. He should restore the committee’s luster—and its purpose—by holding hearings on Afghanistan. A dose of realism here would be a fitting end to Bush’s delusion and bravado and perhaps to some easy assumptions on the Democratic side, as well.

I was part of the 2004 Kerry campaign, which elevated the idea of Afghanistan as “the right war” to conventional Democratic wisdom. This was accurate as criticism of the Bush Administration, but it was also reflexive and perhaps by now even misleading as policy. Today, we need a hard-headed examination of what’s still possible, especially in light of the India-Pakistan confrontation, which could throw the entire subcontinent into further turmoil.

The incoming President seems to sense that unconditional victory may be beyond our reach. On Meet The Press Sunday he spoke of “a very limited goal”—to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorist operations. Even that will be difficult. Obama’s National Security Advisor, retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, once said he knew how to get into Afghanistan, the challenge would be getting out. The strategy not pursued was a quick and massive post-9/11 strike, followed by a withdrawal that would have adjured nation-building and left Afghanistan to a new band of semi-medieval rulers willing to foreswear terrorism against the United States.

If a combination of military power and soft power can’t turn this war around, that may be roughly where we end up. It would be a cruel outcome for the people of Afghanistan, especially its women, who would face another round of grinding oppression. No President could give up the fight to capture Osama bin Laden and close down the terrorist redoubts. But a pragmatic President may be forced to conclude that we can’t remake Afghanistan in our own image—that it’s time to negotiate a “very limited” deal that advances our security while freeing us from a rocky quagmire half a world away.

Before too long, that may be the only option we have left.

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