But now that the war in Iraq has turned up, its longtime supporters think they have found the magic formula for Afghanistan. A big boost in troops, combined with a new strategy aimed less at killing the enemy than winning over the populace, is supposed to produce victory there just as it did in Iraq.
Actually, it has yet to produce victory in Iraq. It did reduce the level of violence considerably, but if that amounts to victory, why do we have 130,000 troops still there, the same number we had before the surge began nearly three years ago? Why are we planning to stay until the end of 2011, a timetable that looks optimistic?
We have improved our position since the worst months of the war. But hundreds of Iraqis are still dying every month, with attacks running at 20 a day. And the country has yet to overcome its basic divisions.
Even that modest success has many people, including some in the administration, thinking we can win in Afghanistan. U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to bring our total strength to 108,000 troops -- more than triple the number we had last year.
Could such a force, with a new strategy, succeed in bringing peace and stability? New York Times columnist David Brooks recently argued for escalation by citing a study indicating that, historically, "counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time."
But the authors, Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli of the University of North Texas, also note that after an outside power shifts to a hearts-and-minds approach, the war typically goes on for nearly a decade. More important, they say, "Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents."
President Obama might keep in mind how Shakespearean tragedies often end: the hero destroyed, and the stage littered with corpses.