In Afghanistan today, the United States and its allies are using the wrong means to vigorously pursue the wrong mission. Persisting on the present course as both John McCain and Barack Obama have promised to do will turn Operation Enduring Freedom into Operation Enduring Obligation. Afghanistan will become a sinkhole consuming resources neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. government can afford to waste.
The allied campaign in Afghanistan is now entering its eighth year. The operation was launched with expectations of a quick, decisive victory but has failed to accomplish that objective. Granted, the diversion of resources to the misguided war in Iraq has forced commanders in Afghanistan to make do with less. Yet that doesn't explain the lack of progress. The real problem is that Washington has misunderstood the nature of the challengeAfghanistan poses and misread America's interests there.
One of history's enduring lessons is that Afghans don't appreciate it when outsiders tell them how to govern their affairs--just ask the British or the Soviets. U.S. success in overthrowing the Taliban seemed to suggest this lesson no longer applied, at least to Americans. That quickly proved an illusion.
In Iraq, toppling the old order was easy. Installing a new one to take its place has turned out to be infinitely harder.
Yet the challenges of pacifying Afghanistan dwarf those posed by Iraq. Afghanistan is a much bigger country--nearly the size of Texas--and has a larger population that's just as fractious. Moreover, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan possesses almost none of the prerequisites of modernity; its literacy rate, for example, is 28 percent, barely a third of Iraq's. In terms of effectiveness and legitimacy, the government in Kabul lags well behind Baghdad not exactly a lofty standard. Apart from opium, Afghans produce almost nothing the world wants. While liberating Iraq may have seriously reduced the reservoir of U.S. power, fixing Afghanistan would drain it altogether.
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Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.