It was an article of faith to Democrats during the latter years of the George W. Bush administration that Afghanistan was the "right war," in contrast to the "wrong war" in Iraq. Taking a vocal stand for Afghanistan enabled them to slam President Bush's unpopular Iraq policy while adopting a fashionably hawkish stand on the war on terrorism. No one likes al Qaeda, and this posture gave then-candidate Barack Obama the chance to say tough-guy things like, "We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights." Because Iraq was the idee fixe of the antiwar crowd, talking about Afghanistan wasn't likely to alienate the doves so long as Iraq was roundly denounced. Anyway, they knew it was just political posturing, right?
What a difference a year makes. Conditions in Iraq have improved dramatically, and security in Afghanistan is deteriorating. An Aug. 31 CNN poll showed that just 49 percent approve of President Obama's handling of the Afghan war, down from 67 percent in March. Questions surrounding Afghanistan's recent presidential election have marred the image of the nation-building effort. The support of our NATO allies is wavering. Casualties are mounting. The right war is going the wrong way.
The president's antiwar base is beginning to notice that its peace candidate is undertaking a troop buildup in Afghanistan that may rival the force levels it protested in Iraq. Protester Cindy Sheehan - no longer a media darling for some reason - now haunts Mr. Obama as she did Mr. Bush. "If George Bush is a war criminal, then Obama is a war criminal," she declared during a recent sojourn on Martha's Vineyard. The doves are coming home to roost.
Mr. Obama might be tempted to advocate the same cut-and-run approach he did for Iraq, but he can't. He has placed Afghanistan at the center of his national security mission. At the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Phoenix on Aug. 17, he said, "We must never forget. This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." A war does not become less necessary just because we are losing.
Meanwhile, some conservatives are edging away from the Obama Afghan strategy, which is barely distinguishable from the Bush strategy. Columnist George F. Will, and Ralph Peters before him, suggested "light footprint" approaches that merit some discussion. During the first five years of the Afghan effort, there were fewer Western troops, fewer Taliban attacks and greater coalition backing from the Afghan people. The recent deterioration of security has occurred along with, not despite, increased commitment. The White House reflexively promotes "resourcing" as the solution to Afghanistan. But if simply sending more troops were effective, the Soviets' 100,000 man/10-year effort would have turned out better.
The light-footprint argument is convenient for Republicans who -- like the Bush-era Democrats -- need a way to stay on the right side of the war on terror but not line up behind the president. The promise of a successful, low-cost, low-casualty anti-terror campaign will be politically popular. It enables Republicans to dispense with having to think about the knotty problems of nation-building, which have always been the most difficult aspect of counterinsurgencies. Our chief concern with the light-footprint argument is the implicit idea that nation-building is not important. We support promoting democracy and development but also recognize that there are limits to what can be achieved in Afghanistan. The place is not in line to be the next Vermont.
If Afghanistan is indeed becoming "Obama's Vietnam," the president would do well to consult Lewis Sorley's book "A Better War." Mr. Sorley argues convincingly that the United States essentially had won in Vietnam by 1971, after Gen. Creighton Abrams revamped U.S. war strategy to focus more on securing the South Vietnamese population rather than seeking Viet Cong body counts. He did this during a force build-down. There were about 525,000 troops in-country when Gen. Abrams took over in the summer of 1968. By 1971, the troop level was about 156,000.
Sometimes less is more, but that is a hard sell in a White House that is convinced that more government is the answer to all the world's problems.