In Afghanistan, Obama Seeks to Learn From the Lessons of History

The president's peace effort comes after decades of troubled U.S. involvement.

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U.S. President Obama delivers an address on U.S. policy and the war in Afghanistan during his visit to Bagram Air Base in Kabul. Reuters

Embedded deep within President Obama's appearance in Afghanistan on the one-year anniversary of the special forces raid that killed 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden was a post-Cold War commander-in-chief's declaration he wouldn't repeat the mistakes of his Cold War predecessors.

Obama didn't say it in so many words, but his 11-minute address to the nation from Bagram Air Base was a promise to wage Charlie Wilson's war under the guise of Obama's peace.

At the end of the 2007 movie based on the book of the same name, Charlie Wilson's War bid audiences adieu with this bittersweet coda: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world."

To which Wilson, the Democratic congressman from Texas who devoted his life to clandestine funding of the Mujaheddin to defeat the invading Soviets in Afghanistan, says: "And then we f**cked up the end game."

When Obama told the nation that the new 10-year security agreement with the corruption-pocked government of Hamid Karzai marked a new chapter in U.S.-Afghan relations, he wasn't kidding.

According to Obama, the message to Afghans still menaced by Taliban thugs (who frighteningly stormed Kabul last month), is that the new agreement means "as you stand up, you will not stand alone."


That means, Congress willing, America will not bug out. Though Obama spoke of the end of 10 "dark" years of war and a bright future of Afghan sovereignty, the far deeper message was Americans would be situated in Kabul and elsewhere until 2024 - and quite probably, much longer.

Obama was far more precise about what won't happen after U.S. forces withdraw fully by December 2014, than what will happen.

"We'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014 - counter-terrorism and continued training," Obama said. "But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people."
 
A senior administration official, briefing reporters via a conference call in Kabul, left nothing to imagination or Soviet-era imagination.

"We've learned, importantly, the rule of 1989, and that's obviously clear in this document," the official said. "In that year, the international community abandoned Afghanistan to years of civil war, which was followed, obviously, by Taliban rule. That is a mistake that we will not repeat. This agreement will make clear to the Taliban, to al-Qaida, and to other international terrorist groups, that they cannot wait us out."

That is how Obama, who had just been sworn in as a first-term senator from Illinois, when the Charlie Wilson's Afghan story hit the big screen, intends to secure his peace and his legacy in Kabul. Obama wants to be the American who stayed. Who didn't botch victory by heading for the hills.

But will America follow his lead? Will Congress?

These are momentous questions that the newly negotiated security pact with Karzai, the product of 20 months of talks, cannot come close to answering.

Here are just a few of the pesky unanswered questions for the Yanks who seek a constant - though not "permanent" presence - in Afghanistan for 12 more years:

* Are the estimated 352,000 Afghan security forces really ready, willing and able to fight and police their country?

* Are security forces just for show in populous cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat? Will they engage in active counter-terrorism or wait to encounter the Taliban?

* What will the counter-terrorism footprint be in the war lord-dominated provinces outside these and other population centers? Will it be a mirage, which it largely is now, or something more robust with a fraction of the current U.S. military footprint?

* What will U.S. training and counter-insurgency forces do to keep the Taliban in check? Can they?

* Can Obama keep Congress and a war-weary public on board? Will NATO forces stay with America or interpret Obama's new approach an invitation to rush for the exit?

Congress may soon see the concrete details of the new U.S.-Afghan security agreement. Until then, most of the country will assume, because Obama said it, the 11-year war is nearly over.

But Obama and his successors may find it difficult to continue Charlie Wilson's war and virtually impossible to maintain Obama's fragile peace.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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