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After seven years in Afghanistan, it’s back to basics. On Friday, President Barack Obama unveiled the results of his comprehensive and long-awaited policy review of the U.S. war strategy in South and Central Asia. Reining in what has become a discombobulated mission, he asked outright, “What is our purpose in Afghanistan?” He then went on to answer his own question: Our purpose is the pursuit of al-Qaida and its leadership, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is little surprise in that decision. Likewise, the new way forward offered few unexpected headlines. The strategy will focus on an approach to […]

In his seminal essay the “Twenty-Seven Articles,” T.E. Lawrence wrote that “a bad start is difficult to atone for” in an insurgency or counterinsurgency effort. As the Obama administration prepares a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, it is learning that lesson all too well. For more than seven years, Afghanistan has been the neglected war, impaired by insufficient resources, troops, planning and oversight. Facing a resurgent Taliban, the administration now has no choice but to chart a new path. Some of the president’s strongest supporters are urging him to scale down U.S. ambitions in the country. They contend […]

KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The Army contractor reached into a green lacquered box and pulled out a clump of wires. He was holding part of the IED that had disabled his Mine Resistant Ambush Protection vehicle, or MRAP, just a few months before. “Here’s the thing I don’t get,” he said. “These guys use really nice German wires, but then they plug them into crappy, old, rundown Chinese batteries.” The explosion hadn’t done much, apart from frightening everyone inside. All it had left behind was a big hole in the dirt and a flat tire on the MRAP. But it […]

Oxymorons rarely work. Sure, people can’t get enough of jumbo shrimp. And there is a good reason why Shakespeare’s, “Parting is such sweet sorrow. . .” still resonates four centuries after it was penned. But on the whole, oxymorons tend to signal an inconsistency that is impossible to resolve. More and more, trends in American foreign policy reflect exactly this kind of incongruity. Take some of the concepts that have evolved over the past few years: warriors as diplomats, for instance, or soldiers as state-builders. Now, Afghanistan’s future, which will likely involve a “surge” of troops, places another seemingly discrepant […]

KAPISA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Over scalding cups of tea in mid-February, an elder in Nijrab, Afghanistan said to me, “For two years you have come here and asked me the same questions. I like you, I like the French, but you people never learn.” He was referring to the generic questions Westerners ask Afghans: What is your life like? Where is the Taliban? What are your village’s needs? This particular elder has regular contact with American troops, and likes Americans enough to have tea with us. Nevertheless, he was deeply frustrated by the way, for all our questions, we never […]