Both the Bush and Obama administrations ignored the offer, apparently because they thought they could bring the Taliban to heel. It was thinking that verged on the hallucinatory.
The trump card holders these days are holed up in the high peaks or hiding in plain sight. Opium is booming in Helmand Province because the Taliban are protecting farmers from drug eradication teams, even blowing up tractors that are used to plow the crop under.
As the 2014 withdrawal date looms, the White House's options are rapidly narrowing. If it holds to its plans to quarter troops in Afghanistan, the insurgency will fight on, and Washington's only regional ally will be India, a country that can deliver virtually nothing toward a peace agreement. If it insists the insurgency recognize the Karzai regime and the constitution, it will be defending a deeply corrupt and unpopular government and a document that excluded the participation of country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. Pushtuns make up the core of the Taliban.
How the U.S. managed to get itself into this mess needs to be closely examined. The State Department under Hillary Clinton has become little more than an arm of the Pentagon, and the White House has shown an unsettling penchant for resorting to violence. In the meantime Afghanistan is headed for a terrible smashup.
The World Bank estimates that 97 percent of Afghanistan's economy is military related. The war is drawing to a finish, and there is no evidence that the U.S. or NATO has any intention or ability to keep the aid spigots wide open. Europe is in the middle of an economic meltdown and the U.S. economy is struggling.
NATO provides about $11 billion a year to support the Afghan army, a figure that will probably drop to about $4 to $5 billion after 2014. There is already talk of reducing the 335,000-man Afghan army to a more manageable and less expensive force of 230,000.
There is a window of opportunity, but only if the Obama administration takes advantage of it. A strategy that might work -- when it comes to Afghanistan there are no guarantees -- would include:
- A ceasefire and stand-down of all offensive operations, including the highly unpopular "night raids."
- Shelving any long-term plans to keep combat troops or Special Forces in the country, and shutting down the drone war in Pakistan.
- Urging the formation of a national unity government and calling for a constitutional convention.
- Sponsoring a regional conference aimed at keeping Afghanistan neutral and non-aligned.
- Insuring aid continues to flow into Afghanistan, particularly aimed at upgrading infrastructure, improving agriculture, and expanding education.
At home, the Congress should convene hearings aimed at examining how the U.S. got into Afghanistan, who made the key decisions concerning the war and regional strategy, and how the country can avoid such disasters in the future.
It may be too late and, in the end, NATO may tuck its tail between its legs and slink out of Afghanistan. But the deep divisions the war has created will continue, and civil war is a real possibility. The goal should be to prevent that, not to pursue an illusory dream of controlling the crossroads to Asia, a chimera that has drawn would-be conquerors to that poor, ravaged land for a millennium.
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