- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Washington punditocracy is atwitter over the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book, “Obama’s Wars.” The book recounts the debates within President Obama’s inner council over the military’s recommendation for a troop surge in Afghanistan along the lines of President Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq. Mr. Obama is portrayed as thoughtful and deliberative in deciding upon a compromise that grants the military a smaller troop surge than it had requested and announcing the start of troop withdrawals in mid-2011. Lost in the discussion of the book and the Afghanistan war now entering its 10th year - is the larger question of whether the Afghanistan war is worth winning.

Start with the obvious: Afghanistan is not Iraq. Iraq is an important country in a region of vital interest to the United States. It lies in the heart of the Middle East and occupies what has been called the cradle of civilization. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, around which civilization formed, flow through the country. It holds what is estimated to be the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves. To the east is Iran with even larger oil reserves, with which it is financing its pursuit of nuclear weapons to achieve its aim of regional dominance. To the west is Saudi Arabia with the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as the world’s largest oil reserves. On its southern border is the Persian Gulf, from which much of the world’s oil is shipped. Transform Iraq and you potentially transform the entire Middle East.

Transform Afghanistan and you transform … Afghanistan. In the community of nations, Afghanistan is little more than a backwater. According to the CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest economies in terms of per-capita gross domestic product. The landlocked, mountainous country has few natural resources of note. Its principal export is opium. Less than 30 percent of the population is literate. Most Afghans live in villages, many of which lack connection with the outside world.

The United States went to war in Afghanistan because al Qaeda struck us from there on Sept. 11, 2001. But today, the number of al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan is estimated by U.S. intelligence at around 100. The United States is now fighting in Afghanistan to prevent a return of the Taliban to power. Al Qaeda is across the border in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and harbored al Qaeda as the terrorists plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. The Taliban, though, aren’t al Qaeda. The distinction is important. As noxious as the Taliban were while in power, a return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan would not represent a clear and present danger to the United States.

Moreover, the proposition that we have to transform Afghanistan to prevent the potential return of al Qaeda is a dangerous one. It consigns the United States to regime change and nation-building in every place where al Qaeda could potentially take refuge: Somalia, Yemen, Sudan - take your pick. As the United States has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, nation-building is messy and expensive.

With regard to the Afghanistan war, Mr. Obama is in a bind. He campaigned for president on the theme that Iraq was the “bad war” and Afghanistan was the “good war”: Iraq was a war of choice on the part of President George W. Bush and his cabal of neoconservatives while Afghanistan was a war of necessity forced on the United States due to the Sept. 11 attacks. The utility of that position during the 2008 campaign was that it enabled Mr. Obama to link then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (who voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq) with Mr. Bush during the primaries while not allowing himself to be pigeonholed for opposing all wars. That campaign pledge now has him boxed in: He can’t turn down the military’s request for a troop surge for Afghanistan - after all, it’s the “good war” - but he doesn’t want to appear completely beholden to the military. Hence, the compromise decision for a smaller troop surge and a withdrawal date. Had Mr. Obama not campaigned on the theme that Iraq was the “bad war” and Afghanistan was the “good war,” he wouldn’t have put himself in the position of having to approve some sort of troop surge for the latter as conditions there deteriorated.

In “Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward quotes Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying before Congress in 2007: “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” Adm. Mullen had it right. Iraq is the prize. Afghanistan is the booby prize.

Christopher Duquette spent six months in 2006-07 at Camp Victory in Baghdad with the U.S. military staff working to counter improvised explosive devices and is a Navy veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.