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Lost in Afghanistan

Lost in Afghanistan

By Richard Reeves - December 5, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama says a lot of smart things. During his campaign last year, in his second debate with Sen. John McCain, in Nashville, he closed by saying:

"We can't expect that if we do the same things that we've been doing over the last eight years, that somehow we are going to have a different outcome."

Or this after he was elected: "I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV. If you're headed for a cliff, you have to change direction. That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver."

And this: "I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war."

Any president takes office as a novice. The job is sui generis. More often than not, the rhetoric of campaigns becomes irrelevant. The situations that reach the Situation Room are infinitely more complicated than campaigning. The constituencies a president has to reach are multiples of the constituency a candidate has to rally to win the damned job.

One of the complications is that in the Situation Room or the Oval Office, everything happens at once: war, economic collapse, crises in health care. Historians, then, clean up the mess, separating, say, civil rights and war in Vietnam. The president, though, does not have the luxury of retrospect. The president of all the people may have to increase troop levels in the impossible landscape of Afghanistan at the same time he announces a date to begin withdrawing from that far place.

President Obama may have been too clever by half last Tuesday night at West Point. He hoped to placate Americans who believe we must not and cannot "lose" or who believe the situation in Afghanistan is a genuine threat to our national security by sending in more troops. He hoped to use the prospect of withdrawal to force the Afghan government, such as it is, to reform itself and persuade Pakistan and other governments that we are there to stay for a while. Finally, politically, he hoped to placate his core constituency, liberals who want out, and our allies who are ready to leave at any moment.

There is, of course, nothing new about any of this. President Nixon did the same thing when he inherited an impossible war from President Johnson in 1968. In painfully arguing that Afghanistan was different from Vietnam Tuesday night, Obama left out the real differences: Vietnam was more humid and the American people were invested in that war because we had a citizen army then, draftees. Sadly, even though we are using heroic volunteers this time, the outcome of both wars will almost certainly be about the same.

Obama, unlike Nixon, does not use words like victory and defeat, an indication that he already knows we cannot "win" in Afghanistan. Win? What? Defeat? Whom? The arguments that this fight is for our national security -- even "world security" -- because the Taliban are bad guys or that we cannot allow al-Qaida "safe havens" in Afghanistan or Pakistan is nonsense. Like it or not, terrorists can hide in a thousand places in the Middle East and Central Asia, in Indonesia, in Hamburg or the borough of Queens. That is the nature of the serpent.

Yes, terrorists are a very real threat to our national security, but eight years after Sept. 11, 2001, the problem is no longer in the Hindu Kush. The problem is "two guys in a garage."

I take that phrase from Ken Auletta, from his necessary new book "Googled." In the course of his media coverage for The New Yorker, Auletta recalls asking Bill Gates of Microsoft what was his greatest concern about the future of the company. He answered, "Two guys in a garage." And so it came to be. The two guys, totally unknown then, in a garage near Stanford University were Sergey Brin and Larry Page, developing the technology and company they would call Google.

Terrorists are not that smart, but we have learned that only a couple of guys can wreak havoc in our world. And Afghanistan is not in our world. The money (and blood) draining into the rocky ground there should be spent on intelligence and bribes to find the bad guys in their caves and garages.

Copyright 2009, Univeral UClick

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