President Barack Obama is said to feel he is in trouble politically because his enemies in Congress and among the Washington journalists who decide what the “mood” of Washington is on any given day say he is not tough enough. This is the kind of mind reading about what the public thinks that got him and the rest of us into an escalated war against the Taliban.

During the presidential campaign, he was persuaded by his handlers to combine his promise of Iraq withdrawal — something the voters wanted to hear from him, and that he intended to do — with a promise to escalate the “right war” in Afghanistan, against al-Qaida and the Taliban, so as to show that he could be tough.

This is what he did, but that left him with a promise to fulfill, so he was in the hands of two young and ambitious generals, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who have never won a war of any kind, but have no lack of confidence in what they can do, given the chance.

They implicitly ignore the fact that no one else has won one against a serious Third World insurrection, among the “white” or Euro-American powers that have tried, except the British, in their decade-long “Emergency” in Malaya: a communist uprising that followed the Second World War.

A savage little affair, it was won mainly by resettling a half-million of the some 3-million-member Chinese minority in Malaya, from among whom the communist rebels came. This drastically reduced the size of the “sea” in which the latter could “swim” (while following the survival advice given by Mao Zedong to his guerrilla followers).

Elsewhere, the Dutch were forced out of the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia, in 1949, and the French and Americans out of Indochina in a struggle that began in 1946 and ended in 1975, 29 years later.

The British prudently offered self-government to India in 1946, but nonetheless more than a half-million people died, and millions were displaced, in the struggle that accompanied partition in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan. Since then, Pakistan and India have fought three wars, and the lingering struggle over Kashmir still generates violence.

Are Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal fully aware of the fact that their war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — from a South Asian point of view — is merely a sideshow in the 60-year struggle between India and Pakistan, and by the Afghans against both of them, as well as against the American Army? Over the two and a third millenniums since Alexander the Great was sent limping off, the Afghans have always won.

Barack Obama and his two generals are going to have trouble putting on a tougher show than Alexander. My point in this dose of history: Just how many Americans have the faintest idea of what their country has now got itself involved in in Asia, without as yet winding up the consequences of nearly a decade in Iraq?

The United States is in Afghanistan allegedly to find al-Qaida, but al-Qaida seems to be in Yemen, or Somalia, or who knows where — a franchise with an unmatched publicity machine. Not finding al-Qaida, the American troops — three more Americans killed Monday, out of a total of six allied dead, and who knows how many Afghans — are looking for, and finding, Taliban.

But the Taliban are only a portion of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan, who are 42 percent of the total population, and only a third of the Afghan army, while the Tajiks are 22 percent of the population, 40 percent of the army and a very large part of the government. The Pashtuns, in their original Taliban form, ran the government, and expect to do so again. After 9/11, they were driven out by American bombers and the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance offensive, meant actually to capture Osama bin Laden — who got away.

Because bin Ladin got away (even though it was George W. Bush he got away from), and because one of his volunteer admirers got aboard an airplane on Christmas Eve 2009 with explosives in his trousers that didn’t explode, Barack Obama now has an alleged problem with toughness.

David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, offers the judgment that Washington makes. “If you are going to be president of the United States … you’re going to have to look like you’re tough on terror.”

Since we are talking about looking, not doing, President Bush satisfied Washington toughness standards by invading Afghanistan and Iraq and walking away from both of the wars he started. Perhaps President Obama could solve his problem by invading Yemen — and three, or seven, years from now, walking away from all three ongoing wars.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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