On the right, some who accepted the Cold War as a great moral cause view the war on terror as a bother -- even as a dangerous excuse for global social engineering. Such tinkering, the argument goes, is particularly doomed in Afghanistan, brimming with warlords both primitive and invincible. And because Afghanistan is now Barack Obama's war, no partisan motive remains to support it.
On the left, some view every conceivable war as a "war of choice" that should never be chosen. With Iraq miraculously unscathed by the attentions of the anti-war movement -- whose success in encouraging untimely withdrawal might have sparked a genocide -- Afghanistan is the next obvious target of their idealism.
The strategic importance of Afghanistan is difficult for critics of the war to deny. The events of 9/11, which began in state-sponsored terror academies there, are not yet generally regarded as a myth. The spread of Taliban safe havens in Afghanistan would permit al-Qaeda to return to its historical operating areas. This would allow, according to one administration official to whom I spoke, "perhaps a hundredfold expansion of their geographic and demographic area of operation." And Taliban advances in Afghanistan could push a fragile, nuclear Pakistan toward chaos.
So critics turn to a different question: What does it matter how strategic Afghanistan is if the war itself is unwinnable?
I posed that question Wednesday to Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. "To be fair," he responded, "all of us should be asking that question more, in view of allegations of electoral fraud (in the recent Afghan election). I don't think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources. But it won't work out if we don't."
Petraeus dismisses the idea that a strategy of drones, missiles and U.S. Special Forces would be sufficient in Afghanistan. "We tried counterterrorist approaches in Afghanistan, launching cruise missiles. Some say we are doing OK with that approach in the FATA (Pakistan's tribal regions). But only because we know where to look." Targeting terrorists is done with on-the-ground intelligence, which "takes enormous infrastructure." In addition, "the Taliban have sanctuaries in Afghanistan. You can't take out sanctuaries with Predator strikes. We are not going to carpet bomb. Distance puts limits on what you can do."