In unveiling his policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama asked a question central to any foreign military engagement, yet one that was never clearly answered in Iraq: What is our purpose there?
Our goal, he went on to explain, is to defeat Al Qaeda and other violent groups operating from a border region that has become "the most dangerous place in the world" for Americans. In other words, the mission is to protect U.S. national security, not to turn Afghanistan into the country we'd like it to be.
Obama is right to shine the presidential spotlight on Afghanistan -- and away from Iraq. He outlined a counterinsurgency strategy that is regional and pragmatic, recognizing that the U.S. cannot defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban alone, nor exclusively by military means. He noted that Al Qaeda is not only hiding and training in Pakistan but attacking it too, and he sought $1.5 billion a year in civilian economic aid for Pakistan -- a request that Congress should grant.
In an important step, the president opened the door to reconciliation with those Talibswho are willing to abandon violence. And at a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague today, the administration is expected to seek further development aid to help dim the appeal of extremist ideologies among the desperate poor. Besides our usual partners, the administration will look for assistance from Russia, China, India and, perhaps most important, Iran; a common enemy in Al Qaeda can serve to build common ground between the U.S. and Iran.
The administration is right to narrow the goals and spread the burden. Many powers have tried to remake Afghanistan in their own image only to depart in failure; drawing on the lessons of Iraq, Obama eliminated the language of democracy-building.
Obama didn't put a price tag on the stepped-up operation, and Congress will have to demand strict oversight of funds destined for a country known for rampant corruption. Then there was the question Obama didn't answer: How will we get out? We will be listening for Obama to articulate his measures for success in Afghanistan and, with that, his exit strategy. This is Obama's war now. Let's hope it's not his Vietnam.