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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Worst Change Obama Could Ask For

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President Barack Obama has explained his economic recovery program in some detail to the American people, but he could not do the same for his Afghan policy. His announcement that an additional 17,000 troops are to be sent to Afghanistan -- an almost 50 percent increase over the number already serving there -- was made abruptly and with little explanation of how their deployment figures into any greater U.S. strategy. The president cited the need to stabilize the deteriorating security situation before the Afghan presidential elections scheduled for late August.

Obama's Afghan policy is still a work in progress, but he does want to receive all of the reviews and recommendations before the NATO summit in early April. He has promised to emphasize diplomatic and developmental approaches in addition to fighting forces. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the new administration's goals, more modest than former President George W. Bush's commitment to regional democratization, focused on "an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, reject the rule of the Taliban and support the legitimate government that they have elected and in which they have a stake." Given the lethal intractability of Afghanistan, those goals don't seem particularly modest.

A troop buildup and surge probably won't work in Afghanistan, a mountainous land of isolated villages, as it did in Iraq, which is flat and has large cities. The Rand Corporation has called for a new "game-changing strategy" in which defeating the Taliban is not a priority. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, George Friedman, author of "The Next 100 Years," contends that only special-operations forces and air power, backed by first-rate intelligence, can secure victory in the war Obama calls "still winnable."

Two things seem clear: 1. Troops alone are not enough. (It was exactly 20 years ago that the last of the Soviet Union's 100,000 troops marched out of Afghanistan in defeat.) 2. Time is short.

By diverting U.S. forces to Iraq instead of fighting al-Qaida, Bush wasted valuable years. The United States has now been in Afghanistan almost as long as the Soviets were. After a while, incursion turns into occupation. Two-thirds of Afghans want foreign troops out.

Time is even shorter now that the Kyrgyz parliament has ratified President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's decision to close the U.S. air base in Manas. Operating since 2003, the base is vital to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. It can handle the C-17 Globemaster military transport planes that ferry 15,000 troops and 500 tons of supplies per month as well as the KC-135 Stratotankers used for refueling jet fighters in flight. The Kyrgyz government thought that the $17.4 million the United States paid in annual rent was insufficient.

But the real problem was Moscow. The Kremlin bought off Kyrgyzstan with $2.15 billion in loans and aid. The Russians have dealt a serious blow to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Obama now has to begin the biggest foreign policy challenge thus far of his administration with severe logistic impediments. This comes right after the Taliban attacks on the Khyber Pass, through which most U.S. military supplies had been passing.

According to the rental agreement, the Kyrgyz government has to give the United States 180 days notice to vacate the base. There is still a slender hope that all these moves have been negotiating postures by the Kyrgyz looking to play one great power off another, a classic Central Asian strategy since the days of the Great Game.

The United States will now have to scramble for new routes and bases just as the spring fighting season begins. Washington will now also be increasingly dependent on Moscow for moving nonmilitary supplies across its territory as well as that belonging to allies such as Uzbekistan, which evicted U.S. troops from its base in 2005 after Washington protested the slaughter of demonstrators in the Uzbek city of Andijan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has said Washington has "far-reaching geopolitical plans, the final aim of which is to change the balance of power and dominate the Central Asian region." The Russian leadership no doubt has similar perceptions and apprehensions -- as does China, which shares a short, 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Russia claims that it wants the United States and NATO to be successful in Afghanistan to help protect Russia from the scourges of the narcotics trade and Islamic terrorism, but not at the price of U.S. influence or dominance in Central Asia. The Russians would much rather see the United States and NATO humiliated in Afghanistan and withdrawing in defeat. That would not only secure Russia's own dominance in the area but also send a message to Ukraine and Georgia that alliances with the West are not dependable.

The Russians have some basis to feel menaced by the West. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker reportedly promised former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move "one inch eastward" as a precondition for Moscow's support of the 1990 unification of West and East Germany. But now 10 of its 26 members are former Warsaw Pact countries or former Soviet republics. And Moscow is wary about the missile interceptors projected to be deployed in Poland to counter a still hypothetical Iranian nuclear threat. Moscow can justifiably interpret these moves as threatening gestures.

Threatening gestures are one thing, but hostile acts are entirely another matter. By essentially bribing Kyrgyzstan to close the U.S. base at Manas, Moscow has increased the risk to American lives while significantly raising the cost of carrying out the war. It is indeed a hostile act, and it would be a mistake for Washington to view it as anything else.

Obama hoped for a change in U.S.-Russian relations. And he got it -- a sharp change for the worse.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."