The Obama administration faces dilemmas familiar to several of its predecessors. America cannot withdraw from Afghanistan now, but neither can it sustain the strategy that brought us to this point.
The stakes are high. Victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would give a tremendous shot in the arm to jihadism globally -- threatening Pakistan with jihadist takeover and possibly intensifying terrorism in India, which has the world's third-largest Muslim population. Russia, China and Indonesia, which have all been targets of jihadist Islam, could also be at risk.
Heretofore, America has pursued traditional anti-insurgency tactics: to create a central government, help it extend its authority over the entire country and, in the process, bring about a modern bureaucratic and democratic society.
That strategy cannot succeed in Afghanistan -- especially not as an essentially solitary effort. The country is too large, the territory too forbidding, the ethnic composition too varied, the population too heavily armed. No foreign conqueror has ever succeeded in occupying Afghanistan. Even attempts to establish centralized Afghan control have rarely succeeded and then not for long. Afghans seem to define their country in terms of a common dedication to independence but not to unitary or centralized self-government.
The truism that the war is, in effect, a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population is valid enough in concept. The low standard of living of much of the population has been exacerbated by 30 years of civil war. The economy is on the verge of sustaining itself through the sale of narcotics. There is no significant democratic tradition. Reform is a moral necessity. But the time scale for reform is out of sync with the requirements of anti-guerrilla warfare. Reform will require decades; it should occur as a result of, and even side by side with, the attainment of security -- but it cannot be the precondition for it.
The military effort will inevitably unfold at a pace different from the country's political evolution. Immediately, however, we are able to make sure that our aid efforts, now diffuse and inefficient, are coherent and relevant to popular needs. And much greater emphasis should be given to local and regional entities.
Military strategy should concentrate on preventing the emergence of a coherent, contiguous state within the state controlled by jihadists. In practice, this would mean control of Kabul and the Pashtun area. A jihadist base area on both sides of the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border would become a permanent threat to hopes for a moderate evolution and to all of Afghanistan's neighbors. Gen. David Petraeus has argued that, reinforced by the number of American forces he has recommended, he should be able to control the 10 percent of Afghan territory where, in his words, 80 percent of the military threat originates. This is the region where the "clear, hold and build" strategy that had success in Iraq is particularly applicable.
In the rest of the country, our military strategy should be more fluid, aimed at forestalling the emergence of terrorist strong points. It should be based on close cooperation with local chiefs and coordination with their militias to be trained by U.S. forces -- the kind of strategy that proved so successful in Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in Iraq. This is a plausible approach, though it seems improbable that the 17,000 reinforcements President Obama recently committed are enough. In the end, the fundamental issue is not so much how the war will be conducted but how it will be ended. Afghanistan is almost the archetypal international problem requiring a multilateral solution for a political framework to emerge. In the 19th century, formal neutrality was sometimes negotiated to impose a standstill on interventions in and from strategically located countries. This provided a framework for defusing day-to-day international relations. (Belgian neutrality, for example, was not challenged for nearly 100 years.) Is it possible to devise a modern equivalent?
In Afghanistan, such an outcome is achievable only if its principal neighbors agree on a policy of restraint and opposition to terrorism. Their recent conduct argues against such prospects. Yet history should teach them that unilateral efforts at dominance are likely to fail in the face of countervailing intervention by other outside actors. To explore such a vision, the United States should propose a working group of Afghanistan's neighbors, India and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Such a group should be charged with assisting in the reconstruction and reform of Afghanistan and establishing principles for the country's international status and obligations to oppose terrorist activities. Over time, America's unilateral military efforts can merge with the diplomatic efforts of this group. As the strategy envisaged by Petraeus succeeds, the prospects for a political solution along these lines would grow correspondingly.
The precondition for such a policy is cooperation with Russia and Pakistan. With respect to Russia, it requires a clear definition of priorities, especially a choice between partnership or adversarial conduct insofar as it depends on us.
The conduct of Pakistan will be crucial. Pakistan's leaders must face the fact that continued toleration of the sanctuaries -- or continued impotence with respect to them -- will draw their country ever deeper into an international maelstrom. If the jihadists were to prevail in Afghanistan, Pakistan would surely be the next target -- as is observable by activity already taking place along the existing borders and in the Swat Valley close to Islamabad. If that were to happen, the affected countries would need to consult each other about the implications of the nuclear arsenal of a Pakistan being engulfed or even threatened by jihadists. Like every country engaged in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to make decisions that will affect its international position for decades.
Other countries, especially our NATO allies, face comparable choices. Symbolically, the participation of NATO partners is significant. But save for some notable exceptions, public support for military operations is negligible in almost all NATO countries. It is possible, of course, that Obama's popularity in Europe can modify these attitudes -- but probably to only a limited extent. The president would have to decide how far he will carry the inevitable differences and face the reality that disagreements concern fundamental questions of NATO's future and reach. Improved consultation would ease this process. It is likely to turn out, however, that the differences are not procedural. We may then conclude that an enhanced NATO contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction is more useful than a marginal military effort constrained by caveats. But if NATO turns into an alliance a la carte in this manner, a precedent that can cut both ways would be set. Those who tempt a U.S. withdrawal by their indifference or irresolution evade the prospect that it would be the prelude to a long series of accelerating and escalating crises.
President Obama said Tuesday night that he "will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens halfway around the world." Whatever strategy his team selects needs to be pursued with determination. It is not possible to hedge against failure by half-hearted execution.