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As Iraq winds down, Afghanistan heats up

Once more, the U.S. is in a tangle with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in a conflict that's looking a lot like Iraq.

July 21, 2009

The scenes and statistics are hauntingly familiar: a videotape of an American soldier held hostage, scared that he won't return to the family he loves; two fighter jets downed this week and four U.S. troops killed by a roadside bomb, making July the deadliest month yet for Western forces in the country; British support flagging as losses mount; and a rise in civilian casualties alienating the very people the troops are there to protect. This sounds an awful lot like President Bush's war in Iraq, but in fact it is President Obama's war in Afghanistan, where the number of foreign troops has nearly doubled this year to 60,000, most of them American.

Administration officials are well aware that this sense of deja vu doesn't serve the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. After a dubious war in Iraq, Americans are licking their recession wounds and looking inward. Eight years after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan suddenly seems far away again. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to remind Americans last week that U.S. troops are in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan "to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies." The Taliban protects Al Qaeda, she said, so "to eliminate Al Qaeda, we must also fight the Taliban."

Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told The Times that he figured he had about a year to show progress against the Taliban or risk losing public support. He faces an uphill battle for many reasons, the first being that the reach of the United States' ally, President Hamid Karzai, who is up for reelection next month, is unclear beyond the capital of Kabul, and foreign troops operate only in parts of the country. A second reason is that as troop levels and fighting increase, U.S. casualties inevitably will rise. And third, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to demonstrate that Al Qaeda is beaten back rather than simply regrouping in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So how will the public know if U.S. forces are making headway? Through the reelection of Karzai, whose government is widely accused of incompetence and corruption? Through the pacification of a handful of provinces, and, if so, which ones? Obama said he wants to increase development projects to win the support of the Afghan people, but what can we expect to see in a year? What are the goals for the growing Afghan military and police?

The administration is no doubt reluctant to lay down benchmarks for success in a country that has seen the backs of British and Soviet troops before ours. Yet the public needs to know how to measure progress if the administration is to hope for continued public support.

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