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Opinion

Obama speech: kicking the can down the road in Afghanistan

But at least by establishing a withdrawal date in Afghanistan, Obama put Kabul on notice to start solving its own problems.

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Meanwhile, Pakistan will never be willing or able to solve Washington's Afghanistan dilemma. Pakistan's own stability has been brought to the very brink by US demands that it solve America's self-created problem in Afghanistan. Pakistan will eventually be forced to resolve Afghanistan itself – but only after the US has gone, and only by making a pact with Taliban forces both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan itself. Washington will not accept that for now, but it will ultimately be forced to fairly soon. Maybe the Pakistanis can root out bin Laden, but meanwhile, Al Qaeda has extended its autonomous franchises around the world, and terrorists can train and plan almost anywhere in the world; they do not need Afghanistan.

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By now, as in so many other elements of the Global War on Terror, the US has become more part of the problem than part of the solution. We are sending troops to defend troops that themselves constitute an affront to Afghan nationalism. Only expeditious American withdrawal from Afghanistan will prevent exacerbation of the problem.

Afghans must face the complex mechanics of internal struggle and reconciliation. They have done so over long periods of their history. The ultimate outcome is of greater strategic consequence to Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, India, and others in the region than to the US. Europe and Canada have lost all stomach for this mission that is now promoted primarily in terms of "saving NATO" for future (and obsolescent) "out of area" struggles in a world in which Western strategic preferences can no longer predominate.

In a crucial counterbalance to the mini-surge, Obama wisely establishes a date for genuine withdrawal in 2011 – thereby putting Kabul on notice to start solving its own problems. The "surge" may just be worth it if it enables Obama to put the US military and Kabul on notice that time is quickly running out to demonstrate genuine political and military progress – reflecting Gorbachev's ultimatum to the Red Army in Afghanistan when he came to power.

So the ugly struggle continues with little prospect for genuine improvement. There are no good choices. Obama has only kicked the can down the road to a possibly even more difficult place both at home and abroad next year. Only with immense luck will his real goal – creation of the minimally acceptable terms for an American withdrawal – come into sight, providing a tiny fig leaf to mask what will essentially constitute a strategic American failure that was inherent in this situation nearly from the beginning in America's global military response to the challenge of 9/11.

Graham E. Fuller is a former CIA station chief in Kabul and a former vice-chair of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He is author of numerous books on the Middle East, including "The Future of Political Islam."

© 2009 Global Viewpoint Network / Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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See also:

Obama's lonely road in Afghanistan

Obama's Afghanistan speech: Five key points

Five reasons for hope in Afghanistan

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