- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Barack Obama probably wouldn’t be president if he hadn’t taken a strong stand against the war in Iraq. He was an underdog to Sen. Hillary Clinton when the Democratic primaries began, and needed an issue to distinguish himself from her. He chose her vote to authorize the war.

The strategy worked. Mr. Obama gained the support of the antiwar left, which was crucial in the early primaries.

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After he wrapped up the nomination, Mr. Obama talked less about Iraq, partly because the extreme position he had taken wasn’t as appealing to a general election electorate, partly because by last summer the troop surge was clearly working.

But even during the Democratic primaries Mr. Obama talked about another war, the war in Afghanistan. That was the important war, he said. He would beef up the U.S. presence there.

Strategically, Mr. Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan was nutty. Iraq, a populous, oil-rich country in the heart of the Arab world, is strategically critical. Afghanistan is a backward bywater.

But politically, it made a great deal of sense. The moonbats, thrilled by his opposition to the war in Iraq, overlooked Mr. Obama’s hawkish rhetoric about Afghanistan. And no Republican could accuse him of being weak on national security. He wasn’t against fighting America’s enemies; he just wanted to fight them in the right place.

But a national security policy designed chiefly for its effects on domestic politics has its drawbacks. President Obama says little about Iraq these days, since he is essentially following George W. Bush’s strategy there. And Afghanistan - where he has announced he will boost U.S. troop strength by 17,000 - has become “his” war.

That war isn’t going well. “Nearly every indicator in Afghanistan is heading in the wrong direction,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in a speech Feb 25. “The number of insurgent attacks was higher every single week in 2008 than during the same week in 2007.”

With the war in Iraq all but over, the antiwar left is developing a predictable queasiness about Afghanistan. “We’ve seen a hopeful presidency, Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, burn up in the furnace of war,” President Obama’s onetime pal, former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, said in an interview Feb. 23. “I fear that this brilliant young man, could easily burn their prospect of a great presidency in the war in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Obama has ordered an interagency review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, to be completed before the NATO summit meeting in April. Such a review is long overdue.

“It’s our own failed policies that are the problem,” Mr. McCain said. “We have tried to win this war without enough troops, without sufficient economic aid, without effective coordination, and without a clear strategy.”

There is no doubt egregious, unforced errors have greatly complicated the situation in Afghanistan. Lewis Irwin, a professor at Duquesne University and a colonel in the Army Reserve who spent six months in 2007-08 as an adviser to the Afghan national police, described in an off-the-record discussion with the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mind-blowing examples of insularity and lack of coordination between the U.S. military and civilian agencies, and between the United States and other NATO governments. But the fundamental strategic situation is this: We cannot lose in Afghanistan as long as we maintain a major military presence there. But we cannot win as long as the Taliban has a safe haven in Pakistan.

Afghanistan has become the principal front in the war on terror, and that’s curious, because we are fighting there the Taliban, not al Qaeda. The Taliban are evil, mean, nasty, rotten guys. But they want to control Afghanistan, not blow up shopping malls in Miami.

We can’t just walk away from Afghanistan, as the antiwar left would like to do. But we need a clear-headed understanding of what our strategic goals are there, what it is likely to cost to achieve them, and whether the American people are willing to bear that cost.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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