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Mr. Obama's war

He will be remembered for what happens in Afghanistan

Mr. Obama's war

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Now begins a precarious transition in the Near East and Central Asia that I am tempted to call a shell game. Low-brow metaphors about real war are a tool used by the other side, but I plunge ahead.

This month and continuing, U.S. troops will pull back from Iraq's cities, and units that are due home will not be replaced. We hope Iraqi insurgents won't notice (upside down teacup with one bean replaced by teacup hiding nothing). At the same time additional U.S. forces are being moved to Afghanistan in a buildup eventually expected to put 21,000 additional troops on the ground (teacup with 3 beans replaces empty teacup). We hope Afghan insurgents will notice some sleight of hand, catch themselves off guard, even find their game thrown. But while cups are in motion our game can be thrown, too.

Since President Barack Obama announced his intent to end combat operations in Iraq by August 2010, much has been made of an uptick in violence. In fact, U.S. casualties in May compared to one year ago and one month ago are nearly unchanged. Iraqi civilian deaths in May stood at 129 and in May 2008 were 396. But a security erosion in Iraq will make remaining troops and Iraqis vulnerable, just as fighting could increase in Afghanistan. It is tricky to know which way, and how fast, to move the cups.

But Obama has made clear that Iraq is not his war-only that he will be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in."

What we do not know is whether he will own Afghanistan. For, be clear on this, it can and likely may be made to hang about his neck. Americans elected him to move more decisively, and sooner, than his predecessor.

The administration's focus on the war in Afghanistan begs for comparisons. Iraq and Afghanistan have similar sized populations that are similarly young: Median age in Afghanistan is 17.6 for men and women; life expectancy, 44.47 years. Median age in Iraq is 20.4 years, but life expectancy is 69.94 years.

Afghanistan's largest ethnic group (Pashtuns) makes up only 42 percent of the population, while Iraq's Arab majority is 80 percent. And two-thirds of Iraq's population is urban, while less than one-fourth of Afghans live in cities. Afghanistan is a landlocked country surrounded by U.S. unfriendlies, and Iraq is not. Consider: NATO has lost over 400 vehicles en route to Afghanistan via Pakistan-controlled supply routes.

Given what we face in Afghanistan, it is not unthinkable that a redoubled U.S. effort will result in more U.S. combat casualties under Obama than we saw under his predecessor. And that, like Bush, Obama could face reelection, or the end of his tenure, with a war in progress.

In recent weeks we have seen the president take decisive steps to reinforce U.S. war footing in Afghanistan. Obama, who before elected to public office said he would vote "no unequivocally" on funding the two wars, put forward a war spending bill of his own that brings the cumulative cost of both wars to over $900 billion.

Obama also changed command in Afghanistan last month, replacing Gen. David McKiernan, NATO and U.S. senior commander, with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal-the first time since Truman recalled MacArthur from Korea that a president relieved a four-star commanding general in the middle of war. McChrystal is a Special Forces officer seen as "new guard," meaning he majors in counterinsurgency tactics (and led the successful manhunt of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) and is a protege of Gen. Petraeus.

What's lacking is a strategy. The debate over closing Guantanamo and the handling of terror detainees cannot overshadow the pressing need for Obama and his new commander to outline his war strategy. We have nearly seven years' history now as a guide, and one thing it teaches is that repeatedly Pentagon leaders and politicians have lacked the will to commit what is required to win. As the Bush administration learned the hard way, it is one thing to say you will hunt terrorists, spread freedom, and build a nation-and another to lay out a course that takes you there.

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