Attention must be paid

I want Ritalin!

Added to the water supply in Washington, I mean. In a nation where every other 9-year-old seems to be medicated for attention deficit disorder, why do we refuse to take seriously the attention deficit disorder crisis afflicting so many of our political leaders?

Take John McCain. Immediately after 9/11, McCain shared the widespread view that the U.S. should go to war in Afghanistan to take out those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. But by late November 2001, he wanted to “move on to the next country.” Uh-huh: “Next up, Baghdad!”

Of course, we stayed in Afghanistan too, but McCain had gotten tired of it. By April 2003, he said that “nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America,” so we could focus instead on the shiny new war in Iraq. “We don’t read about [Afghanistan] anymore, because it’s succeeded,” he explained in October 2005.

But Iraq started getting boring too, so now McCain has turned his restless attention back to Afghanistan -- maybe because Barack Obama keeps hammering away at the issue. (Obama, who’s been fairly consistent on Afghanistan for six years now, is either the rare politician who doesn’t suffer from ADD, or he’s smart enough to take his meds.) On Tuesday, McCain released a “comprehensive strategy for victory in Afghanistan.” Previous claims of success were forgotten. “The status quo is unacceptable,” McCain’s campaign declared, but “McCain will turn around the war.”

Right! Until we move on to the next country! (Remember, Iran is still high on McCain’s list of bright, shiny objects.) I don’t mean to pick on McCain here. ADD is rampant in the corridors of power, and McCain is far from the only sufferer. George W. Bush? A case too obvious to belabor. Congress could use some Ritalin too.


And foreign policy is hardly the only area where the ADD epidemic is causing serious problems: The subprime loan crisis could probably have been nipped in the bud if anyone in power had been capable of paying attention for more than 12 seconds. And don’t get me started on energy policy.

But -- ahem -- let’s not get distracted here. Back to Afghanistan! Let’s think for a minute -- just a short little minute, I promise -- about what it would mean to “turn around the war” in Afghanistan.

Depends what the goal is: Make Afghanistan a stable democracy? Destroy the Taliban? Eliminate the link between illicit Afghan opium production and terrorist financing? Capture Osama bin Laden? No matter how you look at it, it’s not going to be a job well-suited to a nation in the grip of an attention deficit disorder epidemic.

Consider the scope of the problem. In recent months, more U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. According to The Times, in the first three months of 2008, insurgent attacks were up by nearly 40% in just the eastern provinces, compared with the same time period in 2007. Overall, according to the International Crisis Group, suicide bombings went up by 600% between 2005 and 2007, and insurgent attacks by 400%. (The Afghan insurgents, who apparently have a plentiful supply of Ritalin, are paying close attention to successful Iraqi insurgent and terrorist tactics and studiously applying those lessons.)

Meanwhile, U.S. and NATO troops operate under confusingly different rules of engagement and report to different command structures. The Afghan government remains weak and corrupt; the humanitarian situation remains fragile. And when things get hot, terrorists, Taliban and Afghan insurgents find convenient safe harbor across the border in Pakistan (one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid), while elements of Pakistan’s government turn a blind eye.

Unfortunately, we can’t afford to ignore or abandon Afghanistan. With its flammable mixture of violent extremism, illicit drug profits and a tottering nuclear-armed neighbor (Pakistan), the situation there -- unlike that in Iraq -- presents a critical threat to U.S. and global security.

We need to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, but it won’t be easy. At best, we’ll withdraw most of our troops from Iraq within two years and redeploy many in Afghanistan, but that would still be a far cry from the 400,000 troops the outgoing commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan thinks are really needed. (Bye-bye, Iraq quagmire, hello, Afghanistan quagmire!) At worst, we’ll need to maintain a massive troop presence in two countries at once (All Quagmire, All the Time).

And no U.S. military strategy will succeed if it’s not accompanied by a regional political and diplomatic strategy: Stabilizing Afghanistan is inextricably linked to diffusing Pakistan’s political crises as well. Doing this adequately will take resources and patient, sustained attention.

But don’t mourn: organize! Start stockpiling that Ritalin now, folks: Whoever’s in the White House next January is really going to need it.