What else is there to do? That is the question flung at critics of our military commitment in Afghanistan by its promoters. Total victory or total humiliation, the Petraeuses and McChrystals tell us, are the only options. There are other answers and other outcomes. The key is to reappraise American interests in AFPAK. The advocates of slugging it out at all costs presume a vital stake in preventing another 9/11 -- if not worse. In order to achieve that end, we must liquidate all al-Qaeda presence -- in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan. In addition, the Taliban must be eliminated as a political force lest they allow al-Qaeda to set up shop again somewhere in the country. That is an absolutist argument built on the idea that achieving a zero risk situation is possible and that it is essential. But it is a specious argument.
One, no one on this earth has the luxury of living with zero risk to their security. In this case, al-Qaeda -- itself a loose franchise -- can form and reform in a number of places. At the moment, it is incapable itself of doing more than surviving in the Hindu Kush. Terrorist organizations already are morphing and sub-dividing. Two, the scary notion that thousands of diabolical fanatics are out there devising clever schemes to do us in is fantasy. Little more than scare-talk. Were that true, there would have been many more attacks against prime American targets over the past eight years. American leaders, chomping at the bit to broadcast their successes, would have pulled out all stops in publicizing their heroism in thwarting the terrorists. Their silence speaks volumes.
Three, the Taliban in Afghanistan are native Pahtuns with local ambitions. Whatever their ideological affinities with al-Qaeda like groups, they never act outside their own country. Hence, their total elimination as political actors in Afghanistan is not a compelling objective for us. Yes, a return to a Taliban monopoly of power as in 2000 would not be a good thing from our perspective -- although hardly an 'end of the world as we know it now' situation. Preventing them from reconstituting their full control is a worthwhile objective. That goal, however, does not demand crushing them and turning Afghanistan into an American protectorate.
Four, a reasonable objective -- reasonable in terms both of American interests and feasibility -- is to foster a political settlement (or, perhaps, settlements) whereby the various Afghan factions themselves work out a set of arrangements that bring a measure of stability to the country. That is the best we can hope for. It means accepting that we have neither means nor necessity to shape the country's institutions, practices and methods for accommodating multiple factions based on ethnicity, region, tribe, sect and personal rivalry. After all, that is what they've been doing for a couple of millennia -- at least.
Five, our role in pursuing such a modus vivendi is that of a facilitator -- not a dictator. In practical terms, it translates into the following actions:
- Maintain the military forces we now have there -- for the time-being, followed by a drawdown at irregular intervals.
- Use them for two purposes: as a check on Taliban ambitions, and to create enough breathing room for all Afghan parties to move toward political understandings on their own terms. The prospect of a reduced American presence will concentrate nicely the minds of all non-Taliban groups and leaders. We also will stop serving as a Taliban recruiting tool.
- Keep a low profile in Pakistan -- militarily (including our gold crazed horde of privateers), politically and financially.
- Cease exploiting President Zardari's feebleness to expand American influence in the country; that is deeply resented and counter-productive.
- Encourage Pakistani leaders to seek a resolution of conflicts with the country's home-grown Taliban on their own national terms. Encourage them to do the same with the Punjabi based radical groups.
- A scaling down of American ambitions in both places will nicely concentrate Pakistani minds, too.
Finally, abandon the twin illusions that American well-being depends on shaping the affairs of other places wherever something may happen that discomforts us; and that people in those places want us to take custody of their well-being. That is an essential step toward restoring a clearer sense of realism as to what counts, what we can aspire to -- and what is beyond us mortal souls to accomplish.
Oh, we also have a few things to attend to at home.