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New president, new battlefield

Fixing Afghanistan and Pakistan will be harder than fixing Iraq, and the penalties for failure are greater.

February 01, 2009|DOYLE McMANUS

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan will continue to be rocky. After hearing from U.S. intelligence officials who say the attacks have succeeded in disrupting Al Qaeda, Obama has decided to continue Predator strikes in the border region of Pakistan. But the Pakistani army continues to rebuff American proposals for closer cooperation in counterinsurgency operations

The Obama administration's approach can be summed up as practical rather than idealistic. Obama may sometimes have sounded like a dreamer on the campaign trail, but there's nothing dreamy about his foreign policy so far.

There's a simple reason for all that pragmatism: Fixing Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to be harder than fixing Iraq, and the penalties for failure are greater. As Obama said, that really is Al Qaeda on the ground down there. The goal -- denying extremists and terrorists a safe base -- is more modest than bringing democracy to the region, but crucially important.

The downside for Obama is that his presidency, launched with a promise of peace in Iraq, will spend much of its time waging a grueling war in Afghanistan. If all goes well, conditions will improve -- but only after a difficult passage when they are likely to be far worse, with increased violence and casualties.

The conflict will still be underway when the president runs for reelection in 2012. It will be his war then, not his opponent's. But he knew that came with the job.


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