We have been here before--fighting and occupying countries with ancient hatreds and no history of anything resembling democracy--in Vietnam and Iraq. Lyndon Johnson's pride led to humiliation, George W. Bush's stubbornness to stalemate. Can Barack Obama's rationality save us from more of the same in Afghanistan?
In the New York Times today, as the cheerleaders for the Surge argue for an encore, Leslie Gelb makes the opening argument in the case for "How to Leave Afghanistan." It is an alternative the President should hear and consider.
The voters did not choose John McCain's approach to fighting terrorism, and the Obama Administration has a moral obligation to explore other choices than the policies that bogged us down in Iraq and will keep us there indefinitely, no matter what the timetables say.
"Our strategy in Afghanistan," Gelb argues, "should emphasize what we do best (containing and deterring, and forging coalitions) and downgrade what we do worst (nation-building in open-ended wars). It should cut our growing costs and secure our interests by employing our power more creatively and practically. It must also permit us--and this is critical--to focus more American resources and influence on the far more dire situation in Pakistan."
His proposal is to increase money, arms and training to friendly Afghans as US troops withdraw gradually while trying to buy away less extreme elements of the Taliban from their leadership and Al Qaeda and keeping available the option of air strikes to keep them bought.
Most important, Gelb argues, "Obama must do what the Bush team inexplicably never seemed to succeed in doing--stop the flow of funds to the Taliban that comes mainly through the Arab Gulf states. At the same time, he could let some money trickle in to reward good behavior."
What's important now are not the details of any particular proposal to keep us from putting more and more American lives at risk, but a mindset that will explore other options than those that served us so badly in Vietnam and Iraq and threaten to do it again in Afghanistan.