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Opinion: The Afghanistan tightrope

US counterinsurgency strategy is appealing, but it won't work.

US soldiers in Afghanistan
US Sgt. Adam Lachance, center, and Specialist Taylor, right, follow a column of Charlie Company 2-508 PIR 2nd Platoon members of the 2nd BTC, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during a joint patrol with members of the Afghan National Army in Arghandab Valley in Kandahar Province on Aug. 3, 2010. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

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.