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No easy answers to the drawn-out war in Afghanistan that is still claiming American lives

Here’s the fear, sometimes spoken, and sometimes not: Is Afghanistan America’s new Vietnam – a war from which it is agonizingly difficult to extricate ourselves?

The broad answer is no. Unlike Vietnam or Iraq, the United States had to wage war in Afghanistan, whose lawless dysfunction gave rise to the Taliban and provided a haven for al-Qaida.

It was there that the September 2001 terror attacks were incubated and there that the United States needed to respond. It was a just war.

Yet, the United States has encountered the same resistance that other nations, including the former Soviet Union, found when they tried to pacify a land mass that is less a nation than a collection of ungovernable fiefdoms. In that, the experience does, for Americans who were alive in the 1960s, recall the political and military muck that made Vietnam such a hard place to leave.

Still, even that was easier in at least one way. Leaving Vietnam left it open to takeover by Communists, but it at least remained a nation. It had a functioning government, if not a benevolent one. That made it resistant to the kind of anarchy that pervaded Afghanistan and made it easy for al-Qaida to take root and to thrive. The fear – and it should be a real one – is that history could repeat itself whenever the United States withdraws.

President Obama is right to resist “the idea of endless war” in Afghanistan or anywhere else. The question cannot be if the United States should, at some point, leave Afghanistan, but when and under what conditions. This much is certain: Whenever that day comes, the conditions will not be ideal.

Obama would clearly like to have cleared the deck of Afghanistan before his term ends a year from now, and it was a worthy goal. After all, the United States has been slogging through that country’s unsolvable violence for 14 years.

Still, the timing has to be right for this country, not just Obama’s, or any president’s, legacy. And it has to offer some mechanism to render unlikely the return of the Taliban and al-Qaida. To ask for more than that – for a guarantee of security or democracy – is to guarantee an endless war and an open-ended commitment of American troops. And with that comes the inevitable loss of American lives, such as the six Americans killed Monday near the air base in Bagram.

Obama angered Republican critics recently by talking about the pressures of ordering young Americans into battle, sometimes to be killed or grievously wounded. “And so I can’t afford to play some of the political games that others may,” he said.

Yet most Americans, we suspect, would approve of a president who isn’t casual about sending America’s youth into places where death is a predictable risk and under conditions they may never be able to alter. Elections bring out the best in some candidates and the worst in others.

Obama seems resigned to leaving Afghanistan to his successor. It doesn’t sit well with him or with many other Americans, but the fact is that we have a compelling interest in the direction that country takes. It’s a conundrum for which no easy answer exists, but when it arrives, it will not be in blacks or whites, but in deep shades of gray.