Argument

The Road Home from Kabul

Drawing down troops from Afghanistan is the right move. Now it's time to focus on the real threat in the neighborhood: the one coming from Pakistan.

This week, President Barack Obama fulfilled a promise he made to the American people in 2009 to begin responsibly ending the war in Afghanistan. His decision to withdraw 33,000 troops from the country over the next year came from a position of strength, thanks in large part to our men and women in uniform and their civilian counterparts who helped break the Taliban's momentum.

We brought Osama bin Laden to justice and defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is now time to reduce the U.S. footprint and for Afghans to take charge of their country and its future. It is time to focus on the real threats in the region: those that emanate from Pakistan.

Much work remains to be done, and the withdrawal should be seen as the beginning of a new path toward success. The steps that the United States, the Afghans, and the international community need to take in the coming months are clear and achievable.

First, we must recognize that we will still be fighting two separate but intertwined wars. The first is against Mullah Omar's Taliban in southern Afghanistan, the group that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. We must make sure they never do that again. The president's surge gave our military the forces it needed to launch robust operations against the Afghan Taliban, weaken its base, and force its leaders to consider negotiations as a way to survive. Our reconciliation efforts are mostly aimed at this group, which may be driven by a radical interpretation of Islam but whose interests are confined to Afghanistan.

The other war is against those who are likely irreconcilable and dedicated to attacking us, chiefly the Haqqani network and its allies in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. As our troops shift from the south to the east, their mission should shift accordingly from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. It's the job of the Afghan security forces to win hearts and minds. Along the border with Pakistan, where insurgent groups pose a major threat, we should continue to train and work closely with elite Afghan units and the Pakistani military to root them out once and for all. There will be no rest for those who seek to do us harm.

Second, we must work with Pakistan to satisfy both our interests in Afghanistan and Islamabad's. This won't be easy. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since bin Laden was killed near Pakistan's premier military academy. American politicians and the public have responded with incredulity to the notion that the world's most wanted man was hiding in plain sight a couple of hours from the capital city of Islamabad, and Pakistan's leaders were angered and embarrassed by the violation of the country's sovereignty. The task is difficult, too, because some insurgent networks have long-standing ties to the Pakistani state, which has used them as proxies in the fight against India and permits them sanctuaries from which they attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, other insurgents have attacked Pakistani security forces and civilians, killing more than 35,000 people.

Despite these differences, there is common ground with Pakistan. We have shared interest in a political deal to end the conflict in Afghanistan and allow the exodus of U.S. troops. We also share an interest in reining in the extremists who are attacking Pakistan and avoiding another Mumbai-style attack that could destabilize Pakistan-India relations. We need to build on these common interests.

Third, we must push for a political settlement in Afghanistan because ultimately there can be no military solution to the country's problems. This is why I am heartened that the Obama administration is seriously pursuing talks with the Taliban. For reconciliation to work and be enforced, we have to listen closely to our Afghan and Pakistani partners to make sure any deal reflects their real interests and has regional support. We also want to make certain that the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities, are protected. We can help negotiate a regional framework for Afghanistan that includes key players such as Pakistan, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, neighboring countries in Central Asia -- and even Iran, with which the United States has begun preliminary talks. Tehran's interests and influence in Afghanistan merit a place at the table at some point.

Fourth, we should make sure that the Afghan leaders and people know that the fate of their country now lies in their own hands. President Hamid Karzai has said he will honor the Afghan Constitution and step aside in 2014 as the country holds its next presidential election. This will be a key opportunity for Afghans to chart a new course.

A successful transition will be challenging. We need to rethink how best to build and sustain the Afghan army and police in order to leave behind an effective, targeted security force -- not 350,000 unpaid, armed, and angry soldiers. And we have to take concrete steps to prevent the collapse of the wartime economy we have helped create, such as slowly reducing our assistance and working with other donors to set a standard wage so that we stop hiring so many of Afghanistan's qualified civil servants to work for foreign governments and organizations.

Karzai must do his part, too. This means putting the Afghan economy on track by supporting International Monetary Fund negotiations to develop acceptable banking standards, achieving financial stability, and resolving the Kabul Bank crisis; restoring legitimacy to parliament by overturning the special elections tribunal, which is trying to throw out the results of last year's parliamentary elections; and taking firm steps to combat the predatory corruption that alienates the Afghan people from their government.

The road home from Afghanistan will not be easy. Wars do not end overnight, and we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past by abandoning the region. Even as our troops withdraw, the Taliban and others should understand that the United States remains committed for the long run and will never again tolerate extremist sanctuaries that threaten our interests. But if we focus on what is necessary, achievable, and sustainable, our troops can come home while leaving behind a stable Afghanistan capable of charting its own future.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Baraque L'Européen

Forget Kenya. Can Republicans paint Obama as a Brussels bureaucrat?

Of all the primal foreign fears lurking in the imaginations of 2012 Republican primary voters -- from economic decline in the face of a rising China to stealth Middle Eastern jihadists infiltrating the American heartland to illegal immigrants streaming across the borders to take American jobs -- the specter of Europe might seem a little less threatening.

But judging from his campaign announcement and a number of subsequent statements, presumptive GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney seems to find Europe the label of choice in his attacks on Barack Obama's administration. According to Romney, the president takes "his inspiration not from the small towns and villages of New Hampshire but from the capitals of Europe;" his "European answers are not the right solution to America's challenges;" and he is "treating Israel the same way so many European countries have." On the stump, Romney has mocked Obama's economic policies as "awfully European" and described Obama's health-care overhaul as a "European"-style government takeover.

(Romney's rivals have picked up the charge as well, with Newt Gingrich describing the president as a "natural secular European socialist.")

When asked what Romney meant by repeatedly referring to Obama's policies as European, campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom replied by email that Romney "fundamentally believes that the way to get our economy moving and create jobs again is to unleash the power of our free enterprise system. President Obama is more oriented to a European style of government that provides more and more benefits through higher and higher taxes, which smothers job growth. That is a major difference between the two men that we intend to talk about frequently in this campaign."

But beyond simply describing Obama's economic policies, the "European" label carries a host of connotations about the president's values and interests, both foreign and domestic.

"It's a nice shorthand," says Michael Goldfarb, a Washington-based political consultant who worked on John McCain's 2008 campaign and, until recently, advised Sarah Palin on national security issues. "It captures the welfare state, big government, lavish public spending, and national health-care programs, all coming at the expense of the free market and a large and robust national security and national defense program."

"The equation of European as radical is an especially old" theme in U.S. political rhetoric, says David Greenberg, a professor of presidential history at Rutgers University. As far back as the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson's supporters accused the pro-centralization Federalists of harboring pro-British or even monarchist sympathies.

The use of the charge against Democrats dates to the immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, says Greenberg, and was tied to fears of radical political ideologies as well as Catholicism.

"We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion," said one speaker at a Republican convention during the 1884 race. (The negative backlash to the remark may have partially cost Republican James Blaine the election against Grover Cleveland that year.)

In modern times, Michael Dukakis was mocked in 1988 for reciting a Greek oath during his convention speech, and, in the 1992 campaign, questions were raised about a trip Bill Clinton had taken to Moscow as a young student. John Kerry was bizarrely accused of "looking French" by Republican opponents -- tying in to charges that he was effete and out of touch. "Democrats are saying he's one in a million. A war hero who speaks French, isn't it more like one in a trillion?" joked Jay Leno.

On one level, the charge seems a bizarre one to level at Obama, the first ever president who is not entirely of European heritage, doesn't have a European name, had few ties to the continent before becoming president, and has been accused by opponents, since taking office, of neglecting European allies. Not to mention, of course, the elephant in the room whenever questions about Obama's identity come up is the "birther" movement and the suspicion among many Americans that the president may be Muslim or not a U.S. citizen.

"Every presidential contest is about 'he doesn't share your values, his values are different than America's.' People are just a little hypersensitive to it because Obama does have a unique background," Goldfarb says.

The "European" charge has the advantage of allowing Romney, who may eventually have to appeal to centrist voters in addition to the Republican base, to attack Obama on questions of values without appearing to pander to the extremist fringe.

"I think Romney is going for a more genteel version of this because the birther stuff -- like 'rum, Romanism, and rebellion' -- has been so discredited that you can't really use that now or the media will pounce on you," says Greenberg.

But calling Obama European also raises the question of whether the word really means what Republicans think it does. After all, Western Europe's "big three" countries are all ruled by conservative governments -- albeit ones that are probably closer to American democrats in their political orientation. In addition, European governments are slashing budgets with a zeal that would put Paul Ryan to shame, and it was France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's David Cameron who led the NATO charge into Libya. Is Europe really "European" anymore?

"The shorthand always obscured as much as it revealed," says Peter Feaver, a former staffer on George W. Bush's National Security Council who now teaches political science at Duke University and contributes to FP's Shadow Government blog. "If it was DSK in France and Gordon Brown in Britain, it might be an easier sell."

On the other hand, this isn't really a line of defense the Obama campaign is likely to embrace. "Any time the Europeans get to the right of him, it creates a real problem, perception-wise," Goldfarb says.

The most damaging aspect of the "European" critique, and one that fits in the overall Republican narrative on Obama's foreign policy, is the suggestion that Obama takes American decline for granted and has abandoned the idea of American exceptionalism. Or as George H.W. Bush once said, describing Dukakis's worldview, "He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call somewhere out there between Albania and Zimbabwe."

Feaver feels this line of attack could resonate during the campaign.

"You don't want to say that Obama isn't patriotic or that he doesn't love America. That's not what it's about. It's that he's willing to accept an America that's much more limited, that he accepts an America that's flawed and fallen and no better than any other state," he says. "Europe does this well because it connotes both an elitism and a certain kind of has-beenism. They are the former great powers and countries that have embraced their decline."

But one wonders whether, after years of suggestions that their president is a radical, Kenyan, Muslim Marxist, voters will really be energized by the idea that actually, he's a Brussels bureaucrat.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images