If Shakespeare had ever written a play about Afghanistan, it would have been a tragedy, not a comedy. For the United States, Afghanistan has been one tragedy after another, with more looming ahead.
In that part of the world, the only thing more dangerous than failure is success. It was America's success in helping the mujahedeen rebels defeat the Soviet Union that spawned later troubles. In the vacuum left by the departure of the Red Army, civil war broke out among competing factions, with the fanatical Taliban coming out on top.
Their theocratic regime eventually found common cause with al-Qaida after it moved from Sudan to Afghanistan. From that safe refuge, Osama bin Laden plotted and carried out attacks on American targets, but the Clinton administration and the Bush administration failed to respond effectively. The failure led to the 9/11 catastrophe.
After nearly 3,000 people were slaughtered on American soil, the United States invaded Afghanistan. Critics warned it was plunging into a quagmire, but they were proved wrong. In just two months, the Taliban were smashed, al-Qaida was on the run, and victory was ours.
It was a heady moment. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush waxed triumphant, asserting that we had "saved a people from starvation and freed a country from brutal oppression."
But as any student of tragedy knows, it is moments of triumph that carry the greatest risk. Emboldened by our stunning victory in Afghanistan, Bush and his advisers concluded we could win just as easily and quickly in Iraq. The Pentagon figured the U.S. presence would stay no more than six months, with a spokesman saying, "The plan is to get it done as quickly as possible and get out."
Having been drawn into that blunder, the administration proceeded to make another one: shortchanging the mission in Afghanistan to avert defeat in Iraq. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told a Senate Committee, "We very badly under-resourced Afghanistan for the better part of four or five years."
The Bush administration, through hubris or incompetence, acted as though that war were not very important or already won. For the average American, it was easy to forget it was still going on. Few people ever expected that after routing our enemies in 2001, we would still be fighting eight years later—and faring worse all the time.
But now that the war in Iraq has turned up, its longtime supporters think they have found the magic formula for Afghanistan. A big boost in troops, combined with a new strategy aimed less at killing the enemy than winning over the populace, is supposed to produce victory there just as it did in Iraq.
Actually, it has yet to produce victory in Iraq. It did reduce the level of violence considerably, but if that amounts to victory, why do we have 130,000 troops still there, the same number we had before the surge began nearly three years ago? Why are we planning to stay until the end of 2011, a timetable that looks optimistic?
We have improved our position since the worst months of the war. But hundreds of Iraqis are still dying every month, with attacks running at 20 a day. And the country has yet to overcome its basic divisions.
Even that modest success has many people, including some in the administration, thinking we can win in Afghanistan. U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to bring our total strength to 108,000 troops—more than triple the number we had last year.
Could such a force, with a new strategy, succeed in bringing peace and stability? New York Times columnist David Brooks recently argued for escalation by citing a study indicating that, historically, "counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time."
But the authors, Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli of the University of North Texas, also note that after an outside power shifts to a hearts-and-minds approach, the war typically goes on for nearly a decade. More important, they say, "Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents."
President Obama might keep in mind how Shakespearean tragedies often end: the hero destroyed, and the stage littered with corpses.
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