Senator John McCain, appearing on Meet the Press yesterday, made all of his usual noises about Afghanistan and Pakistan — attacking “minimalists” who want to reduce the US mission in Afghanistan, predicting ever greater expenditure of American “blood and treasure,” and so on. But he also said this:

“The best way to get out of Afghanistan fast is [for] people to think we’re staying.”

Now, McCain didn’t mean it this way, but he put his finger on the notion that is current inside the Obama administration. As I reported at length in The Nation last December, after having interviewed many advisers on Obama’s Afghan-Pakistan task force, the Obama team does believe that talking to the Taliban, coupled with regional diplomacy, is the way out. But, before this can be successful, they believe — mistakenly, in my view — that the Taliban won’t negotiate as long as it thinks it is winning. So, Obama’s people say, first we have to convince them that we’re staying. In my Nation piece, I called this the “surge and negotiate” strategy.

Interesting today is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Graham Allison and John Deutch, suggesting that US interests in Afghanistan are next to nil. “What vital national interest does the U.S. have there?” they ask. And they write:

Mr. Obama declared that America has one and only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to ensure that it “cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States.” …

For Afghanistan to become a unitary state ruled from Kabul, and to develop into a modern, prosperous, poppy-free and democratic country would be a worthy and desirable outcome. But it is not vital for American interests.

After the U.S. and NATO exit Afghanistan and reduce their presence and financial assistance to levels comparable to current efforts in the Sudan, Somalia or Bangladesh, one should expect Afghanistan to return to conditions similar to those regions. Such conditions are miserable. They are deserving of American and international development and security assistance. But, as in those countries, it is unrealistic to expect anything more than a slow, difficult evolution towards modernity.

Clearly, the administation is still divided on Afghanistan, with some officials pushing for exactly the “minimalist” path derided by McCain and supported by Allison and Deutch, and others who want a much more aggressive nation-building approach. The question is: Do the latter, at least inside the administration, really believe that the United States can stay in Afghanistan for a decade or longer, building a vast Afghan army whose budget will consume three times the entire Afghan government’s income? Or is it a feint? Are they trying to show the Taliban, its allies, and others that — as McCain suggests — “we’re staying,” while planning an exit? I’d like to think it’s the latter.

In any case, neither the Taliban nor Pakistan will be convinced. Like Iran, which is watching the United States exit Iraq right on schedule, our adversaries in Afghanistan know that we’re leaving, too. We might as well make it public, and start talking.