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How Much is Afghanistan Really Worth to Us?

We must start asking Russia, and others, who the true losers will be if we abandon Afghanistan and leave a resurgent Taliban to lap at their doorsteps.  I am not advocating that we abandon Afghanistan, but our own population and allies might grow weary during the long journey unfolding before us.  The direct threat to us derives far more from al Qaeda than the Taliban, and we can keep punching down al Qaeda for a lot less than it’s costing to prosecute the Afghan war while abdicating significant influence to Russia.  Russia has much to worry about if NATO countries begin to abandon Afghanistan.

Some recent and unfolding examples: Russia allows transit of US military supplies

Russia is not a country given to a humanitarian spirit, and they do not cooperate on matters such as the International Space Station only for the sake of space exploration and science.  Russia can only be trusted to behave in ways that enhance Russian power and wealth.

Beyond the fact that we will need to dedicate decades or even a century to Afghanistan, no country in the neighborhood will cooperate except when it directly affects their own interests.  They will attempt to squeeze every dollar and concession from us as we help secure their neighborhoods, all while the present drug-dealing Afghan government is bucking like a mule while our government is preparing to pin a significant amount of our combat power in a landlocked country.

The sum of many factors leaves me with a bad feeling about all this.  The Iraq war, even during the worst times, never seemed like such a bog.  Yet there is something about our commitment in Afghanistan that feels wrong, as if a bear trap is hidden under the sand.

If I had not witnessed firsthand what our military accomplished in Iraq, I might think our efforts in Afghanistan are destined to fail.  But we are plainly succeeding in Iraq with the long, dark days well behind us.  Our military is proving far more capable of fighting in Afghanistan than any military in history.  The Soviets got crushed by the Mujahidin, with U.S. help.  The Taliban and associates, however, get stacked up every fighting season, though our casualties also continue to increase.  If I did not believe we could achieve success in Afghanistan, I would likely not go back.

As we enter a new fighting season in Afghanistan this year, we need to know that the President has our backs.  Not just that he is behind us, but that he is covering our six and ready to politically and economically pounce on those who hamper our efforts.  We need to know that the President is fully engaged in this fight, that he is there to win and for the long haul, that he listens and takes close counsel from our senior military, and that he has faith that we can make this process work.  But eight years from now, this thing will not be over.

We must also understand that Afghanistan is what it is. The military is acutely aware that Afghanistan is not Iraq.  The success we are seeing in Iraq is unlikely to suddenly occur in Afghanistan.  If we are to deal with moderate elements of the AOGs (armed opposition groups) we must do so from a position of strength, and this means killing a lot of them this year, to encourage the surviving “reconcilables” to be more reconcilable.

Predicting the trajectory of a war is fraught with peril, like predicting next season’s hurricanes.  Anything can happen, and often what changes the course of a war has little or nothing to do with the war.  For instance, a failing global economy, or supervention of some chain of events perhaps still unimagined could cause the Af-Pak war to become less relevant.  Caveats behind us, it seems that 2009 will see the sharpest fighting so far.  That much has been clear for some time, and 2009 is now within our headlights.  We can already resolve from the fog much of what is likely coming this year.  Imagining what is beyond the headlights, my guess is that 2010 might bring the sharpest fighting of the entire war.  My guess is that 2010-11 will likely be crucial years in this process, and that many allies will be making decisions during those years whether to stick it out or to punch out.  By the fall of 2010, we should be able to resolve whether our renewed efforts under President Obama are working or failing.

The Great Game continues, but it’s no game for the people who are fighting it.

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