September 4th, 2009
12:01 PM ET

The cold war of Afghanistan

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Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

“Only stretch your foot to the length of your blanket.” That is an old Afghan proverb, and with summer quickly fading both here and there, it is worth bearing in mind, because it has deeper meaning than just keeping your tootsies toasty. What it is really saying is be careful about overextending yourself. Don’t overreach your resources. Don’t push yourself out into the cold. And that is the undercurrent of much of the talk in DC these days when it comes to Afghanistan, as the political crowd feels the chill of changing seasons in the war.

When we stormed into Kabul in the wake of 9/11, we had broad support in the world. We had overwhelming tactical and strategic advantages. We had the power and justification to drive the Taliban like a nail and we did.

Today, much cooler winds are blowing. In our latest CNN/Opinion Research poll, 57 percent of all voters oppose the war. Among Democrats, the President’s party, the number is well over 70 percent. Some in Congress are grousing for Mr. Obama to set an exit timeline, just as they badgered Mr. Bush about the same thing in Iraq. The White House seems unable to define what an “end” to this war might look like. And military analysts say the Taliban has grown considerably more skilled at attacking our troops. Casualties are mounting.

Generals now talk about the Taliban’s discipline in coordinating attacks and exploiting weaknesses in American defenses. Simply put, the Taliban recognized our strengths, retreated into the mountains, and came back ready to show off their own: Patience, adaptability, and the home-field advantage.

It is an old formula. The Russians saw that Napoleon moved quickly, attacked fiercely and could not be met head on, so they retreated in front of the Grand Army time and again, until distance, hunger, and the brutal cold of winter beat the Little General for them. They lured him into pushing his own foot out from under the blanket.

And now the Taliban is hoping a version of the same trick will work against American troops and all the Afghans who would rather not live under Taliban rule.

There is no question that America’s extraordinary military machine and the fine young troops who make it run can seize the advantage. They can take any field, defeat any opponent, on any given day. But holding what is taken is much tougher. Because politicians and the public are fickle. Because every advantage, especially in war, can melt away as surely as it was won. Because battlefields change like the seasons, and America’s blanket for this war, seems much shorter than it was a few autumns ago.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Afghanistan • Tom Foreman
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