Since the United States first dispatched troops to Afghanistan in October 2001, the war in Afghanistan has been an orphan of U.S. policy. But with the release last week of a revamped U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conflict has, by default, become Barack Obama's war.
In a Foreign Affairs essay from November/December 2001, I chronicled the disasters that have befallen all foreign invaders of Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. Now, more than seven years into the U.S. intervention, the Obama administration must confront many of the same problems faced by all previous occupiers of this rugged land. How the United States manages its presence there over the next year will determine if it can break the pattern.
When Obama announced his policy for the region, he did not speak of a U.S. exit strategy -- a wise decision, as doing so would have diminished the United States' already limited ability to influence events in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Washington's allies are deeply suspicious that the United States will once again retire from the field, leaving them holding the bag. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, those fighting the United States are prepared to hunker down and wait for when they sense a U.S. withdrawal policy is in the wind. If the United States were to declare an exit strategy up front, it would only play to those instincts and make the already long odds of success even longer.
Others -- especially the anti-war wing of the Democratic party -- fear that Obama's strategy risks pushing the United States deeper into the bog of Afghanistan. But, in fact, the United States is already about as deep in the Afghan bog as a foreign military enterprise can get. The president's plan and the team that will execute it -- Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Richard Holbrooke, and David Petraeus -- must have a fresh approach and a touch of boldness if they are to have any chance of success.