Few doubts exist that Barack Obama will pull the US out of Iraq. But when will the US exit Afghanistan? That depends on what he wants to leave behind in the former Al Qaeda haven. By April, when Mr. Obama goes to a NATO summit, he must form a consensus on Afghanistan's future to create a US path out of this historic quagmire country.
Before his election, Mr. Obama talked of a need for democracy in a land that had largely been ruled by kings, warlords, and Islamists before the 2001 US-led invasion. But that Bush-era goal of Western-style, peaceful government in a medieval and tribal culture seems far more fragile these days.
The government of President Hamid Karzai, elected in 2004, is weak and largely confined to the capital, Kabul. The former rulers, the Taliban, are rising in strength despite the efforts by some 70,000 NATO troops, nearly half of them American. This week, Afghan officials were forced to postpone a presidential election set for May to August because of violence and inadequate preparation.
A US downgrade of expectations for Afghanistan began when Obama said in his inaugural address that he hoped merely to "forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan." During her confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton described Afghanistan as a "narco-state plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption."
Then this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the one holdover Cabinet member from the Bush administration, told Congress: "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla [earthly paradise] over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience, and money." He warned against setting unrealistic goals.
The idea of creating democracies in Muslim places as a bulwark against Islamic terrorism may be too costly, Obama seems to be saying. But then what kind of rule should the US help create in Afghanistan or other terrorist-laden places such as Somalia? Will he settle for dictators, like those in most Arab states?
For now, the Obama strategy appears to be threefold: Send 30,000 more US troops, twist Europe's arm to provide more civilian aid in Taliban-infected areas, and appoint an envoy for the region. That envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is tasked to curb the pressures on Afghanistan that arise from the unresolved territorial issues between Pakistan and India, which help drive Islamic militancy and provide a base for Al Qaeda in Pakistan. (Mr. Holbrooke must also look at Iran's meddling hand in Afghanistan.)
By the time Obama meets with other NATO leaders in a couple months, he must have led them to clarity on the goals and timetable for Afghanistan. He must balance the costs in lives and money of keeping Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist launching pad on the West against the possible costs of failing to do that – another Sept. 11-type attack on the US.
With more peace and democracy now in Iraq, Afghanistan has become the deadliest place for US soldiers as well as the greatest military challenge for the US. American impatience once directed at the Iraq war may be expressed at the once "good war" in Afghanistan. It will soon be either "yes we can" in that country, or not.