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Editorial: Iraq's lessons

How ironic that the tonic President Obama prescribes for Afghanistan is in large measure the medicine his predecessor resisted but eventually swallowed for Iraq.

How ironic that the tonic President Obama prescribes for Afghanistan is in large measure the medicine his predecessor resisted but eventually swallowed for Iraq.

Of course, thousands died before President Bush came to the realization that success in Iraq required more than military superiority. He also had to win the hearts and minds of the people being exploited by jihadists.

It was never the strategy in Afghanistan to overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. The Soviets tried that in the 1980s, only to see the U.S.-supported mujaheddin become ever more committed to resisting the invaders.

The Bush brain trust after 9/11 injected only enough troops into Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda crew, while taking collateral steps to disable their Taliban protectors.

Bush wanted to concentrate on Iraq. He also wanted to get out of Afghanistan before its people began thinking of U.S. soldiers as the new Soviets. Seven years later, mission unaccomplished. Osama remains free. The Taliban is resurgent. The Afghans grow weary of their house guests.

Obama wants out, too, but he can't just pick up and leave - any more than Bush could just quit Iraq. So, just as Bush finally did in Iraq, Obama has changed the mission in Afghanistan to one of "stabilization" - which may not include capturing bin Laden.

In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, stabilization requires a better military solution to the insurgency, plus an incorruptible Afghan government that the indigenous people believe they can count on for protection and services.

Obama announced his plan to bring stability to Afghanistan a week ago. It adds 21,000 troops to the 30,000 U.S. soldiers already there, including 4,000 trainers to tutor an Afghan army expected to grow from 83,000 to 134,000 by 2011. U.S. generals are expected to ask for 10,000 more troops next year, and Obama hopes NATO will increase its 32,000 soldiers.

The Obama strategy, though, also includes a State Department-led "civilian surge" in which 1,000 or more nonmilitary personnel will be sent to Afghanistan to help improve police and other government services, while assisting in preparations for the presidential election scheduled for August.

If the civilian enablers do more work at the local level, they can have more impact on ordinary Afghans, rather than being concentrated in the corruption-ridden central government. That could help ease the Taliban's influence.

The more difficult task may be rooting out al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives who have crossed the border into Pakistan. The Pakistanis must be convinced that the hiding jihadists are more of a threat to their society than their traditional enemy, India. Toward that end, Obama is increasing humanitarian aid to Pakistan.

In a sense, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is engaged in the very nation-building that Bush eschewed when he first became president in 2000. Now, Obama finds himself applying some of the lessons Bush learned the hard way on how to get another country to stand on its own.

Will this Bush doctrine of coordinated military and civilian intervention be applied elsewhere to thwart terrorism? Or, after Afghanistan, will we retire from such activism? The answer is as important to America's future as a viable solution to the financial crisis.