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Jewish World Review
Sept. 8, 2009
/ 19 Elul 5769
Will Obama Fight For Afghanistan?
Perhaps this summer's bloody and tragic fighting season did it; or perhaps it was the disappointment of the election, with its low turnout, accompanying violence, and allegations of fraud. Whatever the reason, the Afghan war is suddenly at the center of political debate in several Western countries. At stake are not merely tactics and methods but a far more fundamental question: Should we still be in Afghanistan at all?
Given how different the political cultures of North America and Europe are sometimes alleged to be, the arguments are strikingly similar. In the United States, George Will has just pointed out that the Afghan war has now lasted longer than World Wars I and II combined. In Germany, the defense minister caused an uproar by predicting that German troops might be in Afghanistan for another decade; opposition leaders immediately started calling for a much faster withdrawal. Faced with public disapproval, the Canadians have had to promise to withdraw troops by 2011. The Dutch are supposed to pull out in 2010. At a conference I attended in Amsterdam last weekend, a large audience cheered when a panelist denounced the war. Demands for a time frame"two more years and then out"can be heard almost everywhere.
Equally universal (and bipartisan) are the complaints that the war's aims are unclear or unrealistic. A British defense official resigned last week on the grounds that he no longer believed the nation would accept the government's justifications for the war, which have ranged from "fighting terrorists" to controlling heroin exports. Tom Friedman demanded to know "what it will cost, how much time it could take, [and] what U.S. interests make it compelling." Others grumble that we should be focused on the "real" problems, such as Pakistan, or on an "achievable" solution, whatever that may be.
Which is, when you think about it, all rather strange, since the goals of the war have never been in doubt in any European or North American capital. "Winning" means we leave with a minimally acceptable government in place; "losing" means the Taliban takes over and al-Qaida comes backand no one has ever pretended success would be easy. But this is a war that has never been properly explained to most of the populations fighting it. For years it has simply been "the good war," as opposed to the "bad war" in Iraq, and so no one felt the need to argue further.
The results of this silence are most visible in those European countries where the public has thus been conned into believing that their troops aren't really fighting in Afghanistan but, rather, participating in an extensive armed charity operation. Germans, for example, were deeply disturbed to learn that a German commander had called for the NATO airstrike that killed as many as 90 Afghans in Kunduz last week. This news surprised those Germans who thought their troops in Afghanistan were doing reconstruction work. Yet Americans also seem shocked to discover that the Marines were fighting this summer to retake previously safe areas, that the elections were not going smoothly, and that the government of President Hamid Karzai was corrupt. All of that has been clear for some time. But who was talking about it?
Following the lead of one of the region's most clairvoyant experts, Ahmed Rashid, I would argue that the Afghan situation is not yet hopeless. As I wrote on the eve of the election, there is still a definite Afghan majority in the country that wants not only peace but some version of democracy. The central government still has a modicum of legitimacy, though it may not last for long. The plan to increase troops in the near future in order to give the Afghan army time to grow stronger in the long term is neither stupid nor naive, particularly if accompanied by sensible investments in roads and agriculture. But such a plan cannot be carried out without public support, and public support will not be forthcoming unless politicians agitate for it.
This, then, is the moment for Barack Obama to demonstrate that he knows how to persuade. One or two quick trips to Europe and another behind-the-scenes plea for "more troops" aren't going to do it: The European public may still like Obama better than Bush, but they don't yet believe he's any more committed to Afghanistan than his predecessor was. Nor will Americans be convinced by a speech or two, however high-flown the rhetoric and however elegant the turn of phrase.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Obama needs to convince and cajole, to produce plans and evidence, to show he has gathered the best people and the most resources possibleto campaign, in other words, and campaign hard. If the health care debate will determine his domestic fortunes, the outcome in Afghanistan will make or break his foreign policy. He has said many times that he supports the Afghan war in principle. Now we'll see whether he supports it in practice.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
09/01/09: The Polish Prologue
08/20/09: Why Afghans Need a Vote
07/29/09: No Burqa For Clinton
07/14/09: The Summit of Green Futility
07/09/09: Obama Puts Medvedev Ahead of Putin
06/30/09: In Morocco, an alternative to Iran
06/23/09: An overlooked force in Iran
06/16/09: Some good in a bad election
06/09/09: Why Is the Right Doing So Well in Europe?
06/02/09: Is China Pulling Strings in North Korea?
05/26/09: What a Member of Parliament Deserves
04/22/09: The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't
04/14/09: Do we really need interactive exhibits to bring Jefferson to life?
04/07/09: No Nukes? No Thanks: Obama's odd obsession with universal nuclear disarmament
03/31/09: What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2009, Anne Applebaum. By permission of the author