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Leading article: Obama offers new hope in Afghanistan

Barack Obama started to assume his responsibilities as president-elect with the lightest of sure touches last Friday. It is easy to see him as a modern Atlas, preparing to take the burdens of difficult global problems on his shoulders. As he answered reporters' questions with members of his transition team, however, he did not seem in the least cowed by the prospect. He spoke of the seriousness of the economic challenge that his administration will face when he assumes office on 20 January, but also dealt without any loss of dignity with the issue that obsessed most of those watching, including his daughters: the puppy.

The most pressing of the foreign policy burdens on his shoulders is, paradoxically, not Iraq but Afghanistan. His opposition to the invasion of Iraq was important in defining his position against those of George Bush, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, and in testifying to the quality of his judgement. But the issue declined in salience during the election campaign, partly because the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad gained in confidence and converged with the Obama line on early withdrawal. It may imply too much coherence to describe this as an exit strategy, but plainly the US engagement in Iraq is about to enter the winding-down phase.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the road ahead is less clear. This newspaper shares the view that president-elect Obama has expressed throughout his campaign: that the US-British coalition should reduce troop numbers in Iraq to focus on the war that is worth fighting in Afghanistan.

This is far from an easy option.

As Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is honest enough to argue below, this requires a surge in troop numbers in the short term. It will fall primarily to the US and Britain to provide those additional soldiers, given the failure of fellow Nato nations to come good on their promises to help rebuild Afghanistan.

The Independent on Sunday has never agreed with the crude anti-American argument that both Iraq and Afghanistan are wars of modern imperialism and that western troops should pull out come what may. The cause in Afghanistan was just and was indeed almost universally supported at the time in 2001 when the Taliban, harbourers of terrorists, were toppled. Since then, the international coalition has faced a choice: forget all about it and let the country slip back into warlordist theocracy, or think through what it would take to build a stable polity consistent with basic human rights – and do it.

As Mr Clegg points out, the worst option is to do nothing, because at the moment we have too few troops fighting an enemy that cannot be defeated by military means alone. Their task is, in the vivid phrase typical of the Army, that of "mowing the grass": once the Taliban are suppressed in one area and the international force moves on, they grow back.

So, more troops are needed, but we need a "civilian surge" too, to quote David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary. We need a political process – or, rather, a set of interlocking political processes – to render security objectives militarily achievable and sustainable. Put simply, the international forces in Afghanistan need to know what they are trying to achieve. As Will Pike, an officer who served on the Afghanistan desk at the Ministry of Defence, says in our interview today: "No real thought is going into what we are doing and why."

We owe it to our armed forces to clarify these aims under the terms of the Military Covenant – the moral contract between the British people and their service personnel. Today of all days, as we remember those that have given their lives for their fellow citizens, we have to be straight with servicemen and women about our war aims.

That means building up the capability of the Kabul government's military forces; it means co-opting some of the more purely nationalist elements of the Taliban insurgency; and it means dealing with the sources of instability from outside the country, namely Pakistan and Iran. If there were a clear political strategy leading to Afghans taking control of their own destiny, US, British and other Nato forces could be asked with a clear conscience to support it.

In Afghanistan, as elsewhere in the world, we do not expect the impossible of president-elect Obama. Nothing can be guaranteed about the motives and tractability of the regimes in Iran, North Korea and Sudan, or, for example, of rebel leaders in the Congo. The least that can be said is that Mr Obama starts with a clean slate. But his emphasis on dialogue, his focus on a war worth fighting – rather than one that the world thinks was a mistake – and his thoughtfulness suggest that, if all the rough places are not made plain, then at least the prospects for the world are better than they were before.