The Washington Times

We are only now coming to grips, I think, with the symbolism and the substance of Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, sitting in the president’s box for Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address. At one level, the easiest to grasp, Mr. Karzai’s appearance was simple triumphalism – a celebration of the prowess of American arms and the tenacity of the anti-Taliban forces. Mr. Karzai was “regime change” in flesh and blood, and wearing that cape, rather a dashing figure he was. Both he and Mr. Bush deserved the ovation they received when the American president introduced him.

But, and this is the critical point, Mr. Karzai is no Tony Blair – the guest chief of government in the presidential box during Mr. Bush’s previous appearance before a joint session of Congress, on Sept. 20 last year. Mr. Blair, who had won the eternal affection of Americans for his stalwart support following the terrorist attacks, is after all the prime minister of the United Kingdom, a nation of 60 million people with a GDP of $1.4 trillion and continuity of government stretching back for centuries – the very birthplace of many of the liberties American sought to vindicate by declaring their independence and for which we are fighting now. Seating him in the box is essentially a risk-free proposition.

But Mr. Karzai? His land has been ravaged by war for more than 20 years, during which its 26 million people have known little but the misery of occupation and oppression. Notwithstanding the creation of the interim government, warlords still pose a grave threat to the control of the central authorities. Only a swift U.S. victory averted a humanitarian catastrophe in the form of widespread starvation, and the domestic economy, apart from the drug trade, barely registers. Oh yes, and the business of rooting out al Qaeda and Taliban forces is still a work in progress.

Mr. Karzai is our man in Afghanistan. Mr. Bush was right to put him in the box. But I am not sure even the administration has fully come to grips with the implications.

Quite simply, Afghanistan must not fail. Mr. Karzai and his legitimate successors must succeed – in bringing peace and order to the country, in rebuilding, in creating the conditions for economic development, in providing such basic social services as education and health care, and not least in promoting liberty. The fact of Mr. Karzai’s appearance at the State of the Union is a vivid expression of the fact that the United States is now fully vested in the success of Afghanistan. The failure of Afghanistan would rightly be seen as a failure of the United States.

“Regime change” is, as a matter of first impression, a brilliantly cold term for toppling a government by military force. But what is the nature of the “change” in question? Going from a “bad” regime to merely a “different” regime doesn’t quite sum up what’s at stake. We need to understand that we have to go from “bad” a long way down the road to a “good” regime. Otherwise we face the prospect of the need for an endless succession of regime change in the very same country. We would keep “changing” them until they got it right, I suppose. We may have the raw power to do that, but we aren’t going to like ourselves for it, and neither is anybody else.

We are committed in Afghanistan. Failure there would be an immense blow to U.S. prestige, something to which we can be indifferent only at great cost. If Afghanistan were lost, the effect on our ability to get people to do what we want them to do elsewhere would be devastating. They would see no advantage in siding with the United States and possibly even greater danger to themselves in doing so. At the moment, the United States enjoys the effects of international “bandwagoning,” whereby other nations are drawn to us as the world’s greatest power. If we want to convert this agreeable situation into its opposite, namely, others banding together against us in order to compete with our power, there is no surer way than to let Afghanistan drift.

When you hear Sen. Robert Byrd complaining about the lack of an “exit strategy” for Afghanistan, what you hear is the senescence of a venerable but ultimately inadequate way of looking at the world. There is no exit. We have to get Afghanistan right – and much else besides. If we don’t, we are going to be entirely unsatisfied with the results, and we will probably end up concluding that in the interests of our own safety, we have to start all over again.

We might as well face up to our obligations. The question of nation-building is no longer one of whether to engage in it but of how to get it right.