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September 2, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Expect Afghanistan back in the fore

Obama’s troop boost is likely to resurrect daily war headlines

As the war in Iraq quiets and President Barack Obama has given the nation a date to circle as the last day combat troops will be there — Aug. 31, 2010 — national security experts are bracing for the locus of bad news to shift to Afghanistan.

An additional 21,000 U.S. troops are making their way to Afghanistan as part of Obama’s new strategy to fix what some call the forgotten war.

Nevada’s lawmakers in Washington will face difficult choices as they are asked to fund military operations and support Obama’s mission. Congress could receive a supplemental war spending bill for fiscal 2009 by week’s end.

Call it the silent surge.

Gone is the impassioned popular resistance that greeted President George W. Bush in early 2007 when he sought to put another 20,000 troops in to Iraq.

Many of those opponents of the war in Iraq believe the Afghanistan mission is the right one — the war the country should have kept fighting before it turned its resources to Iraq.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who spoke with Obama personally before the new strategy was unveiled, stands in support.

“We’ve said for some time that we must refocus our resources on threats like al-Qaida and the Taliban in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region,” Reid said.

Nevada’s House Democrats have been less clear. Rep. Dina Titus, who defeated pro-surge Republican Rep. Jon Porter in 2008, said she needs more information. Rep. Shelley Berkley opposed the Iraq surge but has not yet commented.

Yet as the surge is unfolding, so too is discontent with Obama’s plans. Liberal Democrats and some influential thinkers are beginning to push back.

Unfolding are two schools of thought that will largely define the months ahead.

Is Afghanistan the graveyard of empires, the battlefield that neither Alexander the Great, the British nor the Soviets were able to conquer?

Or is the U.S.-led military campaign there a prerequisite to establishing security before any hope of civic aid can unfold?

Matt Bennett, vice president at the centrist think tank Third Way, has been pushing back against the pushback.

Bennett said the campaign in Afghanistan is unlike those previous because it is not a proxy, a la “Charlie Wilson’s War,” between superpowers.

Even more, he points to the emerging Afghanistan army as an increasingly effective force that, it is hoped, will be able to take over security. While the 17,000 troops Obama announced in February are heading to Afghanistan this spring and summer for operations, the 4,000 he announced last month will train Afghans.

The Afghanistan war has continued for nearly eight years, half as long as the war in Vietnam, Robert Kaplan wrote recently in The Atlantic.

Kaplan thinks the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and wonders if the nation has the stomach for the months ahead.

“This incursion will lead to fighting and attendant casualties perhaps on a scale that Americans have not seen since the early days of the surge in Iraq,” wrote Kaplan, also a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“Indeed, for the first time since the U.S. invaded here in late 2001, Americans are about to lead a great battle against culture and geography.”

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former head of U.S. operations in Iraq now in charge of the region and one of Obama’s top national security aides, fielded questions last week on the Hill.

Mostly, lawmakers wanted to know, when will the war in Afghanistan end?

That answer, Bennett said, cannot yet be put on a calendar. “Nobody has any idea. If they told you they’d be lying.”

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