Obama's Daunting Task in Afghanistan

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David Furst / AFP / Getty

U.S. soldiers on patrol in Paktika province, Afghanistan

Suddenly in Kabul, DJs are in demand. Ball gowns are being brushed off and red, white and blue outfits picked out. American expatriates are debating the relative merits of competing inaugural balls, one hosted by Democrats Abroad, another by the U.S. embassy. Tickets for both are sold out, and for those who are neither Democrats nor American, viewing parties have been planned across the capital. Afghans with access to satellite television are charging car batteries to ensure that not one minute of the inaugural festivities will be lost to the city's chronic power outages. Not even Saturday's suicide car bombing in the capital, which killed four Afghans and one American, has dimmed hopes that Barack Obama's campaign slogan, "Change We Can Believe In," applies just as much in Afghanistan.

Perhaps it should. While the death toll was low compared with other recent attacks, the bomber — Shamsullah Rehman, according to the Taliban spokesman who took credit for the blast — was able to penetrate the very center of Kabul. He detonated his Toyota Corolla in front of the German embassy and across the street from a U.S. military base on one of the most well-guarded roads in the capital. The attack took place less than two months after a similar bombing in front of the U.S. embassy that killed four, and just over a year after an audacious commando-style suicide charge on the capital's only luxury hotel took the lives of four foreigners. While it has been largely accepted that the rest of the country is slipping into chaos, the capital, at least, was supposed to be exempt. (See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

It's not. And as President-elect Obama heard from Vice President–elect Joe Biden and Senator Lindsey Graham last week, when the two returned from a fact-finding visit to Afghanistan, "things are going to get tougher" here.

Throughout his campaign Obama correctly (if incompletely, considering the near civil war boiling over in neighboring Pakistan) identified Afghanistan as the central front in the war on terrorism. He has echoed the demands of commanders on the ground for more troops, and the Pentagon has tentatively agreed to send as many as 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to the country. That will nearly double the number of American troops on the ground, and bring the total number of foreign soldiers, including those of NATO nations, to about 92,000. (Iraq, which is smaller in both size and population, had 162,000 troops even before the surge.)

It's a bit of a Cinderella promise. Obama won't get the troops he wants for Afghanistan until they are done cleaning house in Iraq, a line of fine print that has been largely overlooked by escalation cheerleaders. Meanwhile, the incoming administration has indicated that the increase is only a placeholder until a comprehensive new strategy can be developed for the region. (See pictures of Afghanistan.)

The Bush Administration's strategy for Afghanistan was largely defined by its absence of one. Once the Taliban were defeated, U.S. troops remained here in a mostly counterterrorism capacity that ultimately proved self-defeating. Terrorists cannot be wiped out if the factors that lead to the creation of new terrorists — indoctrination, fear, poverty and lack of education, foreign influences and sanctuaries across the border — are not also eliminated. Despite a steady increase of troops in Afghanistan from both the U.S. and NATO, the Taliban insurgency, all but defeated in 2001, has grown in strength and capacity. More of the same is not going to be enough: the year 2008 was the mostly deadly for foreign soldiers since the war began, despite the record number of troops.

The best questions for the Obama Administration to ask are not how many troops, how quickly or for how long but rather what Afghanistan should look like when the U.S. leaves and how much time and money Washington is willing to spend.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

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