In October 2001, a month after the horrific terror attacks on New York and Washington, George W Bush launched America's war against al-Qa'ida and their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan. Eight years on, its prosecution presents Barack Obama with the hardest decision of his presidency – one that will shape perceptions of both the man and his country for the rest of his time in office.
Mr Obama may have been President for less than nine months. But Afghanistan is now, as they say, "his war". Both as candidate and commander-in-chief, he has insisted that, while Iraq was a misbegotten war of choice, Afghanistan was the war of necessity. Never again could that country be incubator for a terrorist strike against the US, one that next time might be nuclear. Already Mr Obama has ordered more US troops to Afghanistan, but thus far to little avail. If anything, the Taliban insurgency is growing stronger, and US soldiers, like their British counterparts, are dying in growing numbers. So what is to be done?
There are alas no good answers. One school, led by vice-President Joe Biden, favours a so-called "Pakistan first" approach, that would shift the focus from Afghanistan to a targeted anti-terrorist campaign, relying largely on drones and special forces, against key al-Qa'ida and Taliban targets who have moved to Pakistan's remote frontier areas. Optimists believe this would enable the US to scale down an increasingly unpopular war, while still keeping America safe.
The other strategy, propounded by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander on the ground in Afghanistan, calls for a full-scale counter-insurgency war that would take the fight to the Taliban, while protecting the Afghan people and training Afghan forces to perform that role in the future. It would however require more US troops, up to 40,000 of them according to General McChrystal.
In principle, we favour this latter approach and, far more important, Mr Obama seems to as well. At meetings with Congressional leaders, he has ruled out cuts in troop levels, and plainly has profound doubts about a purely counterterrorist war. But the real question is whether such a strategy can work.
History's lessons are bleak. In Vietnam, the US lost a war whose solution – like that in Afghanistan – could ultimately only be political, not military. General McChrystal would commit the US to waging a "hearts and minds" campaign for the support of the local population. As in Vietnam however, America is tying its fortunes to a corrupt government, further discredited by the recent fraudulent election, and whose writ does not run much beyond the capital Kabul.
Nor are the military omens encouraging. Afghanistan is famously a graveyard of empires, as Britain and the former Soviet Union can attest. The latter, which even bordered Afghanistan, sent up to 120,000 troops, double current US force strength, during its ill-fated occupation and still was forced to leave. Can the US, for all its military prowess, succeed where others failed?
The stakes for Mr Obama are enormous. US leadership is on the line. If he wavers, America's reluctant allies will rush for the exits. This most rational of men is surely tempted by a "middle way". But this would risk the worst of both worlds – a commitment insufficient to make military progress, but enough to increase opposition to a seemingly futile conflict. The President is right not to be rushed. The Afghan winter, the one sure, albeit temporary, means of halting fighting in Afghanistan is approaching. But sooner rather than later, he will have to choose.Reuse content