It's time to get real about Afghanistan. Withdrawal is not a serious option. The United States, NATO, the European Union, and other nations have invested massively in stabilizing the country over the past eight years, and they will not—and should not—abandon it because the Taliban is proving a tougher foe than anticipated. But it's also time for the Obama administration to get real about the country. There continues to be a large gap between the goals being outlined by the administration and the means available to achieve them. This gap is best closed not by sending in tens of thousands more troops but rather by understanding the limits of what we can reasonably achieve in Afghanistan.
The most important reality of the post-9/11 world has been the lack of any major follow-up attack. That's happened largely because Al Qaeda has been on the run in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The campaign against terrorist groups in both countries rests on ground forces and intelligence. A senior U.S. military official involved in planning these campaigns told me that America's presence in Afghanistan has been the critical element in the successful strikes against Qaeda leaders and camps. Were America to leave the scene, all the region's players would start jockeying for influence over Afghanistan. That would almost certainly mean the revival of the poisonous alliance between the Pakistani military and the hardest-line elements of the Taliban.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Afghanistan is not in free fall. The number of civilian deaths, while grim, is less than a 10th the number in Iraq in 2006. In the recent election, all four presidential candidates publicly endorsed the U.S. presence there. Compare this to Iraq, where politicians engaged in ritual denunciations of the United States constantly, to satisfy the public's anti-Americanism.
The Obama administration's answer to the worsening situation in the country appears to be: "more." More troops, civilians, tasks, and missions. There is nothing wrong with helping Afghans develop their country. But if the goal is to give Afghanistan a strong, functioning central government and a viable economy, the task will require decades, not years. Afghanistan is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. It has had a weak central government for centuries. Illiteracy rates are somewhere around 70 percent. Building a 400,000-strong security force, as some in Congress have proposed, will be arduous in this context, not to mention that its annual cost would be equivalent to 300 percent of the country's GDP.
The focus must shift from nation building to dealmaking. The central problem in Afghanistan is that the Pashtuns, who make up 45 percent of the country and almost 100 percent of the Taliban, do not feel empowered. We need to start talking to them, whether they are nominally Taliban or not. Buying, renting, or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America's stabilization strategy, as it was Britain's when it ruled Afghanistan.
Efforts to reach out to the Taliban so far have been limited and halfhearted. Some blame President Hamid Karzai, who, bizarrely, wants to start this process himself by negotiating with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has shown no sign of wanting to deal. But the U.S. government remains deeply reluctant as well, or at least wants to wait until Taliban forces are on the defensive. But, as one American official said to me, "Waiting to negotiate till you are in a position of strength is a bit like waiting to sell your stocks till the market peaks. It sounds good, but you will never know when the time is right."
The dealmaking should extend to the top. U.S. officials should stop trashing Karzai. We have no alternative. Afghanistan needs a Pashtun leader; Karzai is a reasonably supportive one. Let's assume the charges of corruption and vote rigging against him are true. Does anyone really think his successor would be any more honest and efficient? The best strategy would be to see if we can get Karzai to work with his leading opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, in some kind of coalition. The muddied elections actually create an opportunity to build a national-unity government.
There are three ways to change security conditions in Afghanistan. First, increase American troops. Second, increase Afghan troops. Third, shrink the number of enemy forces by making them switch sides or lay down their arms. That third strategy is what worked so well in Iraq and urgently needs to be adopted in Afghanistan. A few years from now, we can be sure that Afghanistan will still be poor, corrupt, and dysfunctional. But if we make the right deals, it will be ruled by leaders who keep the country inhospitable to Al Qaeda and terrorist groups like it. That's my definition of success.