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Afghan exit must look like a victory

Updated: March 15, 2012 8:07AM

Appearances and perceptions matter. Whether America is seen as leaving Afghanistan with a credible claim of success or just rushing to the exits will weigh heavily on the credibility of U.S. defense and foreign policy in a dangerous world. And there’s reason to be worried.

A case of how perception about U.S. policy went wrong came in the run-up to the Korean War. In a 1950 speech, Secretary of State Dean Acheson left Korea out of his description of the U.S. “defense perimeter,” leading, critical historians argue, the Soviet Union and North Korea to believe America would not come to the defense of South Korea if the north invaded. The result was the Korean War, with 34,000 U.S. combat deaths and hundreds of thousands of Korean casualties, a conflict that ended in stalemate, and North Korea still a threat to peace today.

In Afghanistan, we find ourselves in another messy war. During the 2008 election, Democrats argued that Afghanistan, the staging ground for the 9/11 attacks, was the just war that the Bush administration had pushed to the sidelines by invading Iraq.

President Barack Obama ordered a temporary troop surge and a time line for the withdrawal of American forces. The idea was to so bloody the Taliban on the battlefield that they would be forced into submission or at least to negotiate an end to the war favorable to U.S. interests. At the time, I argued it deserved bipartisan support despite the obvious weakness of telegraphing a withdrawal date to the enemy.

Then came last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden. That, I argued then, constituted a moment of triumph that Washington should seize to justly claim success and begin a rapid withdrawal. It was a position others also advanced, but government, as it has proved time and again in Democratic and Republican administrations, is slow to pivot quickly at moments of crisis and opportunity.

The hour of triumph has long passed. And the fears about Obama’s policy — that our foes would wait out the time line — appear to be turning into reality.

No doubt U.S. forces have achieved impressive battlefield gains. But the enemy has demonstrated daring with attacks in the capital of Kabul and other places once deemed safe. A NATO report based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 enemy prisoners shows that the Taliban think they are winning, that they can outlast the U.S. commitment and that “many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

The administration has moved up by a year to 2013 the time line for an end to the lead U.S. role in combat. Washington seems more anxious to get talks started than the Taliban, leading to speculation that some of the worst terrorists at Guantanamo might be freed just to get the Taliban to negotiate. That almost certainly would be perceived a sign of weakness.

Maybe the United States can inflict crippling blows on the Taliban and build up the Afghan security forces in the next year or two. Let’s hope so. An America strong in perception and in reality is still vital in a dangerous world. Especially at a time when Iran pursues nuclear weapons; Syria is descending into civil war and may even spark a wider Mideast sectarian war, and Egypt threatens to prosecute Americans working for pro-democracy groups, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

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