Should We Still Be in Afghanistan?

Yes—and Obama must make the case on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps this summer’s bloody and tragic fighting season did it; or perhaps it was the disappointment of the election, with its low turnout, accompanying violence, and allegations of fraud. Whatever the reason, the Afghan war is suddenly at the center of political debate in several Western countries. At stake are not merely tactics and methods but a far more fundamental question: Should we still be in Afghanistan at all?

Given how different the political cultures of North America and Europe are sometimes alleged to be, the arguments are strikingly similar. In the United States, George Will has just pointed out that the Afghan war has now lasted longer than World Wars I and II combined. In Germany, the defense minister caused an uproar by predicting that German troops might be in Afghanistan for another decade; opposition leaders immediately started calling for a much faster withdrawal. Faced with public disapproval, the Canadians have had to promise to withdraw troops by 2011. The Dutch are supposed to pull out in 2010. At a conference I attended in Amsterdam last weekend, a large audience cheered when a panelist denounced the war. Demands for a time frame—”two more years and then out”—can be heard almost everywhere.

Equally universal (and bipartisan) are the complaints that the war’s aims are unclear or unrealistic. A British defense official resigned last week on the grounds that he no longer believed the nation would accept the government’s justifications for the war, which have ranged from “fighting terrorists” to controlling heroin exports. Tom Friedman demanded to know “what it will cost, how much time it could take, [and] what U.S. interests make it compelling.” Others grumble that we should be focused on the “real” problems, such as Pakistan, or on an “achievable” solution, whatever that may be.

Which is, when you think about it, all rather strange, since the goals of the war have never been in doubt in any European or North American capital. “Winning” means we leave with a minimally acceptable government in place; “losing” means the Taliban takes over and al-Qaida comes back—and no one has ever pretended success would be easy. But this is a war that has never been properly explained to most of the populations fighting it. For years it has simply been “the good war,” as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq, and so no one felt the need to argue further.

The results of this silence are most visible in those European countries where the public has thus been conned into believing that their troops aren’t really fighting in Afghanistan but, rather, participating in an extensive armed charity operation. Germans, for example, were deeply disturbed to learn that a German commander had called for the NATO airstrike that killed as many as 90 Afghans in Kunduz last week. This news surprised those Germans who thought their troops in Afghanistan were doing reconstruction work. Yet Americans also seem shocked to discover that the Marines were fighting this summer to retake previously safe areas, that the elections were not going smoothly, and that the government of President Hamid Karzai was corrupt. All of that has been clear for some time. But who was talking about it?

Following the lead of one of the region’s most clairvoyant experts, Ahmed Rashid, I would argue that the Afghan situation is not yet hopeless. As I wrote on the eve of the election, there is still a definite Afghan majority in the country that wants not only peace but some version of democracy. The central government still has a modicum of legitimacy, though it may not last for long. The plan to increase troops in the near future in order to give the Afghan army time to grow stronger in the long term is neither stupid nor naive, particularly if accompanied by sensible investments in roads and agriculture. But such a plan cannot be carried out without public support, and public support will not be forthcoming unless politicians agitate for it.

This, then, is the moment for Barack Obama to demonstrate that he knows how to persuade. One or two quick trips to Europe and another behind-the-scenes plea for “more troops” aren’t going to do it: The European public may still like Obama better than Bush, but they don’t yet believe he’s any more committed to Afghanistan than his predecessor was. Nor will Americans be convinced by a speech or two, however high-flown the rhetoric and however elegant the turn of phrase.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Obama needs to convince and cajole, to produce plans and evidence, to show he has gathered the best people and the most resources possible—to campaign, in other words, and campaign hard. If the health care debate will determine his domestic fortunes, the outcome in Afghanistan will make or break his foreign policy. He has said many times that he supports the Afghan war in principle. Now we’ll see whether he supports it in practice.