President Barack Obama certainly showed leadership mettle in going against his own party's base and ordering a troop surge into Afghanistan. He is going to have to be even more tough-minded, though, to make sure his policy is properly executed.
I've already explained why I oppose this escalation. But since the decision has been made — and I do not want my country to fail or the Obama presidency to sink in Afghanistan — here are some thoughts on how to reduce the chances that this ends badly. Let's start by recalling an insight that President John F. Kennedy shared in a Sept. 2, 1963, interview with Walter Cronkite:
Cronkite: "Mr. President, the only hot war we've got running at the moment is, of course, the one in Vietnam, and we have our difficulties there."
Kennedy: "I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the (Vietnamese) government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them; we can give them equipment; we can send our men out there as advisers. But they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort and, in my opinion, in the last two months, the (Vietnamese) government has gotten out of touch with the people."
Cronkite: "Do you think this government still has time to regain the support of the people?"
Kennedy: "I do. With changes in policy and perhaps with personnel, I think it can. If it doesn't make those changes, the chances of winning it would not be very good."
What JFK understood, what LBJ lost sight of, and what BHO can't afford to forget, is that in the end it's not about how many troops we send or deadlines we set. It is all about our Afghan partners. Afghanistan has gone into a tailspin largely because President Hamid Karzai's government became dysfunctional and massively corrupt — focused more on extracting revenues for private gain than on governing. That is why too many Afghans who cheered Karzai's arrival in 2001 have now actually welcomed Taliban security and justice.
"In 2001, most Afghan people looked to the United States not only as a potential mentor but as a model for successful democracy," Pashtoon Atif, a former aid worker from Kandahar, recently wrote in The Los Angeles Times. "What we got instead was a free-for-all in which our leaders profited outrageously and unapologetically from a wealth of foreign aid coupled with a dearth of regulations."
Therefore, our primary goal has to be to build — with Karzai — an Afghan government that is "decent enough" to earn the loyalty of the Afghan people, so a critical mass of them will feel "ownership" of it and therefore be ready to fight to protect it. Because only then will there be a "self-sustaining" Afghan army and state so we can begin to get out by the president's July 2011 deadline — without leaving behind a bloodbath.
Focus on those key words: "decent enough," "ownership" and "self-sustaining." Without minimally decent government, Afghans will not take ownership. If they don't take ownership, they won't fight for it. And if they won't fight for it on their own, whatever progress we make will not be self-sustaining. It will just collapse when we leave.
But here is what worries me: The president's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said flatly: "This can't be nation-building." And the president told a columnists' lunch on Tuesday that he wants to avoid "mission creep" that takes on "nation-building in Afghanistan."
I am sorry: This is only nation-building. You can't train an Afghan army and police force to replace our troops if you have no basic state they feel is worth fighting for. But that will require a transformation by Karzai, starting with the dismissal of his most corrupt aides and installing officials Afghans can trust.This surge also depends, the president indicated, on Pakistan ending its obsession with India. That obsession has led Pakistan to support the Taliban to control Afghanistan as part of its "strategic depth" vis-a-vis India. Pakistan fights the Taliban who attack it, but nurtures the Taliban who want to control Afghanistan. So we now need this fragile Pakistan to stop looking for strategic depth against India in Afghanistan and to start building strategic depth at home, by reviving its economy and school system and preventing jihadists from taking over there.
That is why Obama is going to have to make sure, every day, that Karzai doesn't weasel out of reform or Pakistan wiggle out of shutting down Taliban sanctuaries or the allies wimp out on helping us. To put it succinctly: This has a chance to work only if Karzai becomes a new man, if Pakistan becomes a new country and if we actually succeed at something the president says we won't be doing at all: nation-building in Afghanistan. Yikes!
For America's sake, may it all come true.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.