- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

The main currently known foreign-policy challenge for President Obama during the next four years will be navigating troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan - and determining how allied forces will be deployed in the latter military theater.

Much of his legacy as commander in chief will be predicated on how he manages to execute these twin challenges. Mr. Obama has to straddle a fine line between his campaign promises to withdraw from Iraq and the reality on the ground. He will surely not want to squander the gains made in Iraq (at great cost in American blood and treasure) in achieving greater security and stability since the troop surge. At the same time, he was elected on a “get out of Iraq” mandate and will be under great pressure to accommodate the left-wing base of his party. The test of his leadership will be his ability to fend off the political demands of Democratic Party constituencies when they conflict with military reality.

The United States currently has 140,000 troops in Iraq and 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama wants to add at least 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. He also wants a dramatic drawdown in Iraqi ground forces within 16 months, leaving some troops to fight terrorists and train Iraqi soldiers.

The first aspect of getting this right is ensuring that he doesn’t adhere too rigidly to his own 16-month timeframe for departing from Iraq. All he needs to do here is provide a general outline for his wishes - and let America’s top military leaders figure out how and when this can be done. The public will give him leeway on the drawdown if it believes he has made a good-faith effort to complete the task. And if Mr. Obama decides that military reality requires a delay in pulling troops out of Iraq, the American people are mature enough to understand this.

As more troops are deployed to Afghanistan, Mr. Obama must then ensure that the mission there is clearly defined.

Afghanistan is growing into a quagmire: troops are needed to quell the insurgency, and yet the insurgency grows as the mission expands. For example, many Afghans profoundly resent efforts to curb the poppy trade, which is a key source of their revenue. As Americans attempt to curb the poppy trade, the Taliban grows in strength and the people turn to Taliban leaders for protection. Also, the Taliban acquires funds from the poppy trade which in turn helps them to maintain their operations. So, what happens when American and NATO troops try to root out the poppy trade? The insurgency grows. What happens when they do not try to root out the poppy trade? The insurgency grows.

The only way out of this is to find an alternative source of revenue for the people. Only by providing a simultaneous alternative source of revenue for the people can Americans hope to disentangle the people from the Taliban. In so doing, it might be possible to reduce support for the Taliban among less-doctrinaire Afghans (not unlike what look place in Iraq with the emergence of the Sunni Awakening movement), thereby isolating the most radical Taliban backers.

Does such a major alternative source exist? Professor James Nathan of Auburn University-Montgomery proposed in an exclusive Washington Times op-ed article on Jan. 8 that the U.S. buy all of Afghanistan’s opium, providing a reasonable case that this was far cheaper in the long run than any alternative. It deserves further study, as it may be the only feasible answer.

President Obama must also deal with other challenges in Afghanistan: integrating the command structure and persuading NATO allies to contribute more troops. Currently, Western troops are dispersed into various zones, and the war effort has been plagued by a lack of cooperation between NATO and U.S. forces - and a further lack of coordination with Afghan police forces. No less important a priority for the United States is persuading fellow NATO members to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. That effort suffered a blow last week, with France and Germany announcing that they would not increase troop levels. This irresponsible behavior has to be somewhat sobering to Mr. Obama.

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