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On Sept. 3, the New York Times published a very revealing front-page article from Iraq about a bizarre bank robbery that summed up the challenge of where we are in Baghdad and Kabul and how to think about what it will take to succeed in both places.

The article began with an appalling tale: Bodyguards for one of Iraq's most powerful men, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, tied up eight security officers at a Baghdad bank, executed them point-blank and then made off with $4.3 million in cash. It is the sort of story that leaves war supporters shaking their heads, asking what we have accomplished in six years of U.S. involvement there, and war opponents saying, "I told you so."

But then, suddenly, the story took an interesting turn. It noted that the robbers were quickly identified by witnesses, and most were arrested. After a short trial, a court in Baghdad sentenced four out of the nine robbery suspects to death. One man was acquitted; the other four are still missing.

Although the plotters are still on the loose, "the robbery also demonstrated in some rickety way that Iraq's young institutions, the judiciary, the news media and its increasingly democratic politics, make it difficult for even the country's most powerful people to snap their fingers and make an embarrassing case go away," the article noted. "And, contrary to the state of affairs under Saddam Hussein, there was an open trial free for anyone to criticize - and they did - even if death sentences were handed down in only two and a half days." All the money was reportedly recovered.

Why is this story revealing? First, Iraqis and Afghans have one big thing in common: They are like battered children. And battered children often grow up to be battering adults. That is, to survive under Saddam in Iraq or to survive the Russian occupation and the Taliban years in Kabul was to survive terrifying levels of brutality. And it made many people brutal and corrupt to get by.

What you see in this bank robbery story is the struggle between Iraq's old political culture of brutality and corruption and its incipient new one of democracy and the rule of law.

Now that Saddam is gone, we have to hope "that a new generation will grow up with enough rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and democracy that it will be able to overcome the culture of brutality that Saddam instilled," said Joseph Sassoon, the Baghdad-born author of Iraqi Refugees and an adjunct professor at Georgetown. "But we should have no illusions; the batterers may still win."

That is what we have accomplished in Iraq so far: At a huge cost, we have given a chance for a more democratic political culture to emerge in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. That is not insignificant. But changing a political culture is hard. It will take a long time before one trend decisively wins - and more American help will be needed to keep it on track.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is advocating a new strategy, designed to make the Afghan people feel safe in order to get their cooperation in defeating the Taliban. It, too, requires changing the political culture and state-building from bottom up, another long historical process. You can't visit a Greg Mortenson school for girls there without being touched by the necessity of such an effort. But you can't walk through an Afghan town made of mud huts, or observe how our Afghan "allies" perverted the last election, without sensing how hard it will be.

While visiting Afghanistan in July, I met a U.S. diplomat in Helmand province who told me this story: He had served in Anbar, in Iraq, and one day a Marine officer came to him, after carrying a wounded buddy off the battlefield on his back, and said to him, "The policy had better match the sacrifice."

In Iraq, for way too long, our policy did not match the sacrifice of our soldiers. It was badly planned and underresourced. Before we proceed with this new strategy in Afghanistan we have to give our generals a chance to make their case, we also have to insist that Congress debate it anew, hear other experts, and, if Congress decides to go ahead, to formally authorize it. Like Iraq, it would involve a long struggle, and we can't ask our soldiers to start something we have no stomach to finish.

In short, President Barack Obama has to be as committed to any surge in Afghanistan as President George W. Bush was in Iraq, because Obama will have to endure a lot of bad news before things - might - get better.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told an American Legion convention about Afghanistan: "Let's take a good hard look at this fight we're in, what we're doing and why we're doing it. I'd rather see us as a nation argue about the war, struggling to get it right, than ignore it. Because each time I go to Dover to see the return of someone's father, brother, mother, or sister, I want to know that collectively we've done all we can to make sure that sacrifice isn't in vain."

© New York Times News Service

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