The chroniclers tell us that Lyndon Johnson never took to the Vietnam War. He prosecuted it, it became his war, but it was, in LBJ's language, a "bitch of a war." He fought it with a premonition that it could wreck his Great Society programs.
He had a feel for the popular mood. "I don't think the people of the country know much about Vietnam, and I think they care a hell of a lot less." We know how that war ended, and the choreography of President Obama relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command notwithstanding, there is to this Afghan campaign a sense of eerie historical repetition. There is no need to overdo the analogy, but there is a good measure of similarity to that earlier ill-fated campaign. There is the same ambivalence at the top, a disjunction between the military battlefield and the political world at home.
So a beleaguered president has replaced a talented but indiscreet military commander with a talented, discreet successor. The large questions about the war persist, and there persists as well that unsettling sense that the president is prosecuting a war he can neither abandon nor fight to a convincing victory.
For Mr. Obama, this Afghan campaign doubtless bears the crippling impact of its beginnings. It was out of Mr. Obama's desire to demonstrate that he was no pacifist that his commitment to the Afghan war had begun. It was in the midst of his run for the presidency that he was to draw a distinction between "stupid wars" (Iraq as the primary exhibit) and wars worth fighting.
Afghanistan became the good war of necessity. He was to sharpen the distinction between these two wars in the course of his first year in office. On the face of it, this was a president claiming a distant war, making it his own. But there was a lack of fit between this call on Afghanistan and the president's overall summons to his country.
Mr. Obama's is an uncertain trumpet. He had vowed to fight in Afghanistan while belittling the challenge that radical Islamism posed to American security. He had told his devotees that the anti-Americanism in the Islamic world was certain to blow over in the aftermath of his election. He had attributed much of that anti-Americanism to the Iraq war and to the ideological zeal of his predecessors. His foreign policy was to explicitly rest on a rupture with the foreign policy of the past. Like Jimmy Carter's in the 1970s, this was to be a foreign policy of contrition for America's presumed sins.
A big battle loomed at home, and this was where Mr. Obama's heart and preferences lay—a struggle between economic freedom and the marketplace on one side and an intrusive, redistributionist state on the other. In this new climate of national introversion, Afghanistan was at best a sideshow. The war was going badly, and Mr. Obama feared that this war would overwhelm his presidency.
So last December, after a period of drawn-out assessment, Mr. Obama opted to split the difference. He who had opposed the Iraq surge when in the Senate launched a surge of his own. He would give his commanders additional forces, but this was a surge with an Obama twist. The announcement of a new commitment was at once the announcement of an exit strategy. The troops would be sent but American withdrawal would begin in the summer of 2011.
Mullah Omar in Quetta may not be schooled in the arcane details of American politics, but he had all the knowledge he needed: The Americans were not in this fight for long. He would wait them out and then make a run at the regime in Kabul.
Our "ally" in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, also made his own calculations. The faithlessness he has showed in recent months was the nervousness of a man who feared that his American patrons and protectors were on their way out, and that he, like so many Afghan leaders before him, would be left to the wrath of the mob. In Mr. Karzai's ideal world, the Americans, with their guns and machines, and their vast treasure and contracts, would never leave.
In the phase to come, the deadline for the start of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, will stalk this military campaign. It will be fought in the inner councils of the Obama administration, and will, in time, become a matter of public disputation.
For the president and his vice president—and no doubt for Democrats in the House and the Senate—the July 2011 deadline will be what it is. For the U.S. military, and for the secretary of defense and the national security hawks, that deadline is, by necessity, flexible, meant to convey, as Gen. David Petraeus put it before the Senate Armed Services Committee in mid-June, a "message of urgency." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put it this way: The withdrawal will be determined by "the conditions on the ground."
The "conditions on the ground" are a euphemism for the ability of the Afghan forces to assume the burden of security for their own homeland. After all, counterinsurgency requires a native regime that would hold its own against insurgents and defend its own homeland. No serious assessment holds out the promise of a capable Afghan regime and a devoted national army that would fight for the incumbent government. Afghanistan is what it is, a land riven by corruption and sectarianism, a population weighed down by illiteracy and hardened by years of betrayal and abdication. The "Afghanization" of the war is a utopian idea.
The history of the Vietnam War offers a cautionary precedent. Deadlines of withdrawal, once announced, take on a life of their own. In his incomparable recollection of the American "extrication" from Vietnam—his word—former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes that the promise of "Vietnamization" served to confirm Hanoi "in its course of waiting us out." Withdrawal of American troops, Mr. Kissinger memorably observed, became like "salted peanuts" to the American public, "the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded." If this pattern holds, the war at home over Afghanistan has only just begun.
We have a peerless commander on his way to the Afghan theater of war. He knows the ways of the East, and he has mastered them the hard way. In his time in Iraq he was fond of a maxim of T.E. Lawrence: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are there to help them, not win it for them."
Gen. Petraeus takes that maxim with him to the land of the Afghans; he and his soldiers can do their best for them. But he can't rid them of their historic afflictions. Nor can his mission end in success if our country isn't in this fight for real. The East is merciless this way. It has an unsentimental feel for the intentions and the staying power of strangers.