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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Standing on Sidelines May Cost Bush Dearly

For a long time President George W. Bush resisted engaging in the Middle East, fearing that a high-profile diplomatic intervention might fail and therefore hurt his credibility. Then Bush realized that, for a global superpower, not having a policy is itself a policy; standing back may sometimes harm your credibility even more than wading in and falling short.

Now the administration should grasp the same point on Afghanistan. There, the president has refused to back an international peacekeeping force that would extend beyond the capital, fearing that the peacekeepers might fail. As a result, Afghanistan risks a descent into chaos. The costs to Bush's credibility may be bigger than he seems to realize.

Bush has stated that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan as it did after the Soviet withdrawal. He has invested his credibility in the success of the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai and in the longer-term reconstruction plans that the United States has helped to craft. In sum, Bush has staked his, and the United States', prestige on replacing the Taliban regime with something better. If he cannot make good on this promise, he can hardly expect anyone to believe that he will succeed in replacing Saddam Hussein with a more palatable Iraqi government.

So far, however, it's not clear that post-Taliban Afghanistan is headed to a better future. The past two weeks have brought an assassination attempt against the defense minister, an attack on the office of Kandahar's governor and a mortar attack on an air base used by U.S. forces. Warlords are fighting over parts of the country. The prospect of a revived heroin business increases the incentive for armed gangs to hang on to their weapons.

The Bush administration has acknowledged that Afghanistan's instability is troubling. And yet it has resisted an expanded international peacekeeping effort that could deliver the security it regards as necessary, claiming that a new Afghan security force can do the job instead. But the experience of building new security forces in other divided countries teaches that this is a multi-year project. In the meantime, there is no alternative to outside peacekeepers.

This truth is recognized by top officials at the State Department, one of whom has suggested a five-fold increase in the peacekeeping force. It is recognized by Karzai and by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, both of whom have called for extra peacekeepers. But this truth has yet to be embraced by the president. U.S. armed forces and their allies continue to battle terrorists in Afghanistan, with great courage and at great risk. But when it comes to enforcing a post-conflict stability, Bush is standing on the sidelines, threatening the credibility of his war on terrorism.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.