There are only two real issues left in the foreign policy debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. One is how soon to withdraw from Iraq; and the other, what to do about what Obama thinks is the “real” war America should be fighting, in Afghanistan. Yet neither the Iraq nor the Afghanistan issue is within the power of any American president to resolve. He only thinks he can, and his advisers tell him he can and should. But the critical variables are outside his control, and certainly outside the control of American and NATO military forces.

What happens in Iraq will be determined by the decisions of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, and by his government’s relations with the members of the Sunni Awakening Movement, many of them former insurgents, who until now have been paid by the U.S. government to defend their own neighborhoods but are being transferred to government authority — whose Shiite leadership distrusts them. It will be decided by the Shiite religious leadership, and by the government of neighboring Iran.

Washington says the surge has won the Iraq war. For whom?

The new American president must decide whether to demand (or fight for?) permanent American bases in Iraq, as McCain wants, and the Maliki government, and Iran, and presumably the Shiite religious leadership, don’t want. Obama says he will close permanent bases within the 16-month withdrawal period he has announced. But then the Pentagon will ask, what was this war all about? What is the answer, to them, and to the allied dead, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and bereaved?

The second basic decision for a new president concerns Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaida and Pakistan. Stated in those terms, it sounds simple. It actually refers to the following separate conflicts:

The first is the U.S.-NATO war against a politico-religious movement composed of native Afghans — members of the main Afghan ethnic group, the Pathans — who want to take back control of their country from the unfortunately corrupt government to which the United States has awarded it.

Two American specialists, Nathaniel Fick and Vikram J. Singh of the Center for a New American Security, claim that the average Afghan pays out one-fifth of his income on the bribes necessary to make a living and get along, and that the Hamid Karzai government is widely perceived as having forfeited its legitimacy. Perhaps life would be worse yet under the Taliban. But surely that is for them to decide.

Next is an American effort to capture Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders, thought to be in Pakistan. But as bin Laden — if he is still alive, as some doubt — and his associates can at any moment pack their suitcases and move to anywhere they like, why is it necessary to fight a war over him at the cost of Afghan, Pakistani, American and allied lives in Afghanistan? This is madness.

The next conflict is between the new Pakistani government and a rising Islamist movement inside Pakistan itself, strong in the frontier Tribal Areas and increasingly influential in cities in the north of the country, sustained by its belief that Pakistan’s government has sold itself to the infidel Americans.

It has been reinforced by the increasing tension between American and Pakistani armies on the frontier, and by civilian casualties resulting from American attacks inside Pakistan. The Islamists are inspired by hatred for a Pakistan government now “fighting America’s war,” and allowing Americans to attack Pakistan.

The Pakistani army, the force until now holding the country together (with its nuclear weapons), has ties with the native Islamists and the Afghan Taliban; it is at the same time a vital instrument of central government authority; and it possesses its own professional and national loyalty to Pakistan’s integrity and autonomy.

It resists U.S. demands that it sweep up the Taliban and al-Qaida and hand them over, whatever the cost to Pakistani interests. (This tally of conflicts has not taken account of the small-scale war already developing between U.S. and Pakistani armies, and the intensifying civil struggle inside Pakistan against the religious traditionalists.)

Last week, a leaked diplomatic dispatch from the British ambassador in Kabul predicted that NATO will lose the war against the Taliban. A London Sunday newspaper reported that the British military commander in Afghanistan holds exactly the same opinion. Many Americans in Afghanistan express the same view.

Why is this so? The logic of this kind of war is that the more foreign troops that are sent to a country like Afghanistan, the more Afghan and Pakistani nationalist outrage and fury is generated, and the more support there is for the Taliban against the foreigners.

The new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, has already called for reinforcements for “a long and arduous counterinsurgency campaign that could last many more years” — and which, he says, ultimately can only have a political settlement.

Could someone, somehow, explain to Barack Obama and his people — the only ones in the presidential race who conceivably might listen — that this terrible entanglement of conflicts has nothing seriously to do with the basic national interests of the United States, which has never been harmed by the Taliban, and whose fundamental interests have nothing to do with who rules traditionally unconquerable mountain territories in Central Asia?

To persist in this war is simply, and appallingly, a blind continuation of the policy George W. Bush announced in 2001, as quoted by Bob Woodward in his book “Bush at War”: “to create chaos, to create a vacuum” in Afghanistan and to “export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.”

Must we continue under our next president?

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

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