The myth about George W. Bush having traded a successful campaign in Afghanistan for a neoconservative fantasy in Iraq is exploding. Despite his campaign promise to redirect the American military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, President Obama is unlikely to do anything of the sort. As the A.P. reports, “Obama said he wants to add troops to turn back a resurgent Taliban, but he has not gone beyond the approximately 30,000 additional forces already under consideration by the previous administration.”
At the same time, the President has been receptive to Pentagon officials wary of the 16-month Iraq-withdrawal timetable outlined by Obama the candidate. On Wednesday, Obama made his first presidential visit to the Pentagon and met with Gen. Ray Odierno, who recommends a significantly slower drawdown. The New York Times reports, “The White House indicated that Mr. Obama was open to alternatives to his 16-month time frame and emphasized that security was an important factor in his decision.” Today in Iraq — land of the supposed quagmire, the fiasco, and the new Vietnam — Iraqis voted in extraordinarily peaceful provincial elections.
Where does this leave the question — demagogued by Democrats in two U.S. presidential elections – of the Bush administration’s fatal shift in focus from Afghanistan to Iraq?
The American operation in Afghanistan accomplished some of its immediate goals – deposing the Taliban regime and destroying al Qaeda’s save haven — within the first weeks of its prosecution. The hunting down of al Qaeda members continues to this day. The long-term goal of establishing a reasonably stable — governable — Afghanistan was always bound to be the work of decades.
Three years into the job, Afghans voted for their first ever democratically elected president. Five years in, they had their first elected parliament. Seven years in, signs of budding democracy continue to appear – even as the threats of tribal warfare, narco-terrorism and jihad grow.
As in Iraq, it seems the U.S. will end up fighting more than one war in Afghanistan. George W. Bush did not “drop the ball.” The most immediate American interest was served by the quick toppling of the Taliban government and by putting al Qaeda on the run. As was done in Iraq, the U.S. must devise a workable strategy for the next phase of fighting in Afghanistan. This means a recalibration of expectations on the part of the war’s proponents, but also some reconciliation among skeptics. A few propositions must be taken in combination: Perseverance in Iraq lead to victory; a radical change in strategy was the key; Afghanistan, for all its chaos, is a more hopeful country today than it was in 2001; Afghanistan must not become a terrorist safe haven again; and a simple shift in focus from one country to another was never the answer. This remains the long war.