Opinion: The Afghanistan tightrope

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As United States foreign policy makers wrestle about Afghanistan, three temptations must be forcefully resisted: re-asserting the U.S. commitment to winning the insurgency war against the Taliban; weakening the U.S. plan to begin withdrawing forces; and blocking local and regional efforts to negotiate a resolution.

The review of our Afghan policy scheduled for December should begin now, with its efforts devoted to getting out as soon as can be managed, and not to hanging on open-endedly, hoping against evidence and reason that things will seriously improve.

This is a risky balancing act, but continuing with the existing option is more treacherous. The highly hyped counterinsurgency strategy is illusory. It is an attractive concept in the abstract — “secure, hold and build’’ — but enjoys neither the capacity nor the conditions to actually work.

Securing remains frustrated. Holding is delayed. Building is even more of a failure: development is almost impossible without security; the military itself cannot accomplish the local rehabilitation and stability needed; and the civilian backup to accomplish enduring building is absent, both from the internationals and from Kabul. In truth, any U.S. commitment to assure good governance in a democratic Afghanistan before it withdraws is a self-entrapment of dire consequence.

Although U.S. objectives are noble, the reality is that it is impossible for them to be successful without two assets that the United States does not — and will not — have.

First is the level of resources — financial, troops, civilian expertise — to truly sustain the necessary effort. Second is time. Even if the U.S. were successful in pursuing its objectives it would take generations. The nation simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to sustain the investment required, given competing priorities abroad and at home. Moreover, the lack of political will to tolerate a continuing draining of precious resources and unending U.S. casualties will become overwhelming.

Some of our virtues — optimism, “can do’’ spirit, refusal to quit — can distract us from guarding against extending foreign involvements beyond our capacity to deliver in environments we cannot control. We need to strive more in enduring than winning, and in achieving what we can get out of a bad situation rather than in trying to eradicate it.

Washington should seize on the one thing where it and Kabul agree — both sides reject the other as a reliable partner, and both sides are correct. The current Afghan government is not capable of transforming itself soon enough to build a viable state in the middle of a protracted civil war. And the U.S. cannot stay long enough; it can be depended upon to leave.

The promise of this mutual recognition is that it confirms the need for Afghanistan to work out its own problems. Although the United States has said Kabul must settle its own hash, our actions have not driven this home. So Afghanistan relies on us to carry the fight and take the blame.

Given this rare compatibility, the United States should encourage President Hamid Karzai rather than oppose him in taking responsibility for his own fate by attempting to find a way of reaching a political agreement with the Taliban on Afghanistan’s future, one accepted by Pakistan. The United States would play a major role in the negotiations; and also agreement must be sought from other major actors, including India, Saudia Arabia, Iran, China and Russia.

A strategy which was willing to sacrifice some of its ambition but still have a chance of success would essentially be to substitute a commitment to political accommodation for the dominance of military force and role in our overall approach. There would neither be “abandonment’’ nor “occupation,’’ but rather a different configuration. Reduced but present U.S. troops will remain essential to the combined effort. Priorities would be tenacious diplomacy and the provision of prolonged political support and development aid for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Finally, the core American security interest to combat the real enemy, which is not the Taliban but Al Qaeda and its like, remains to be recalibrated and strengthened.

Clearly this strategy is replete with risk and uncertainty, but lacking a better one, it is where U.S. leadership should direct its energy, imagination and will.

Jonathan Moore, a former special assistant to the Secretary of Defense and ambassador to the United Nations, is an associate at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Moore is also a member of GlobalPost's Editorial Advisory Board.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.