Five reasons for hope in the Obama Afghanistan plan

One key is not setting a final exit date, which would only allow the Taliban to wait out the US.

President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan should once again give that disheartened country a "reason to hope," as he put it, in gaining a life free of violent extremists.

But it should also give Americans – also disheartened over this long war – a reason to hope for a life free of more Al Qaeda attacks.

The first and most sensible reason for optimism lies in Mr. Obama's decision to lay out a new exit strategy that does not also set down a final exit date.

His plan rests on a bold assumption that Afghans can start to better stand up to the Taliban – through a quadrupling of their Army, a campaign against corruption, and an uplifting of farmers – with the first handover of responsibility starting in 18 months.

But Obama also calculates that a steady hand-off of responsibility for security will not succeed if eternity-minded Islamic fighters know that US troops will withdraw before Afghan forces are ready. He has wisely tied a pullout to the Afghan forces meeting certain benchmarks for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

A second reason lies in the rapid surge of 30,000 more US troops by next summer – if complemented by an additional 5,000 troops from other NATO nations.

The Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have made dangerous advances in the past few years, raising the specter of Al Qaeda having a larger haven for training. This fall, Pakistan finally sent its Army into Taliban-run areas. To reassure both countries of American resolve, Obama now wants to roll back the Taliban in its stronghold of southern Afghanistan. This will reassure Pakistan and other countries that the US will "finish the job," as Obama put it.

Doing so will help create a third reason for hope – preventing a Taliban takeover of Pakistan and its nuclear weapons.

Obama has set the US on a mission to create a nuclear-free world. (He receives the Nobel Peace Price on Dec. 10 for embracing this goal.) His commitment to stabilize Pakistan – both with direct aid but also by stabilizing Afghanistan – is essential to that goal.

Perhaps the fourth – and most iffy – reason for hope is his aim to win over lower-level Taliban fighters or even cut deals with their local commanders. As Gen. David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, says, "There is no alternative to reconciliation."

As with anti-US Sunni fighters in Iraq, the US plan is to integrate disaffected Taliban into national or local Afghan forces. Achieving this would signal the final "degrading" of the insurgency, as Obama officials put it.

But to do so first requires gaining territory – thus the surge – while winning the loyalty of more Afghans with massive civilian aid, or the fifth and final reason why Obama's plan may work.

Since the 2001 invasion, the US has done well in setting up schools and health clinics. The number of children in school has grown from 1 million to 8 million. Obama plans a surge of US civilian aid focused on the types of agriculture that can wean farmers off the lucrative opium trade, which helps fund the Taliban. (Last month, in a sign of economic progress, Afghanistan exported 12 tons of apples to India.)

Obama's complex strategy, honed over three months, defines realistic goals with a minimum of resources that the US can afford. It will depend in part on his constant attention to difficult details, such as withholding aid to corrupt Afghan officials and making sure Afghan forces are well embedded with US troops for training.

He must also not be tricked by the Taliban possibly lying low for a couple of years – as it did after being ousted from power in 2001 – leaving the Afghan forces untested in battle and the US overconfident in believing it can withdraw.

Afghanistan was once a stable, semi-democratic nation until it fell into three decades of conflict. Its people resent Islamic radicals. These are the basics to once again invest in a country that served as a springboard for spreading fear around the world.

Hope can replace fear. And Obama's plan provides a balanced approach to achieve that.

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