There is no likelihood that the current US war in Afghanistan can achieve its aims (a narrower goal, the elimination of Al Qaeda, has for the most part already been accomplished). The corrupt government of President Karzai and his cronies is no longer sustainable, whether or not there is a second round in the fraud-marred election. A new government in Kabul must emerge, in the process accommodating Pashtun nationalists, the Taliban and other insurgents. Those latter groups, along with tribal and ethnic leaders, various warlords and representatives of Afghanistan’s myriad political factions, will need international support to underwrite a new national compact. That national accord will probably not be a strong central government but rather a decentralized federal system in which provinces and districts retain a significant degree of autonomy. To secure international support, the United States must defer to the United Nations to convene a conference in which Afghans themselves hammer out the new way forward. The world community must pledge its support of Afghanistan financially for years to come. And this must occur against the backdrop of an unconditional withdrawal of US and NATO forces.

Accordingly, the first step for Washington must be to abandon the idea of a decades-long counterinsurgency, fire its advocates–including Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual–and admit that the multiheaded insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan can’t be defeated by military means. At the same time, the Obama administration will have to give up its massive nation-building project, dismantling the empire of US departments, agencies, provincial reconstruction teams and the rest now overseen by Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy. Instead, the United States should prepare to channel a substantial flow of international development assistance and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through a newly reconstructed, rebalanced Afghan government.

In addition, President Obama should declare that the United States has achieved its principal objective in Afghanistan, namely, the near-total destruction of Al Qaeda as an organization. With the agreement of the Afghan government, a limited US intelligence and counterterrorism mission designed to monitor the remnants of Al Qaeda can remain in Afghanistan. And Al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be dealt with by intelligence, law enforcement and US Special Forces personnel in cooperation with security agencies in those countries.

The president must also announce an unconditional timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, on the model of the US drawdown in Iraq, over, say, a period of two years or so. The goal should be a Status of Forces Agreement with a new Afghan government, pertaining to the role of US forces in training an Afghan national army far smaller than the bulky 400,000-man security force envisioned by General McChrystal.

Then comes the tricky part: the president should encourage the convening of an international Bonn II conference involving the UN, the major world powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors–including Iran, India and Pakistan–to support the renegotiation of the Afghanistan compact. At the table must be representatives of all of Afghanistan’s stakeholders, including the Taliban and their allies. In advance of that, the United States should join other nations and the UN to persuade President Karzai, his main electoral opponents and other Afghan politicians to form a coalition that would create an interim caretaker regime until the establishment of a more broadly based government.

At the same time, the United States must launch a diplomatic surge aimed at persuading, cajoling and bribing Afghanistan’s neighbors to support the effort, including Taliban supporters, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and opponents, including Iran, India and Russia. Obama must recognize that Pakistan is a key part of the problem, not the solution: the Afghan Taliban are not a formless, leaderless group. They are an arm of Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, and they have an address: Rawalpindi, the garrison city that is the headquarters for the Pakistani military. The message of the world community to the Pakistani military must be clear: Pakistan’s legitimate interests in Afghanistan will be recognized, but Pakistani support of terrorist groups, whether aimed at Afghanistan or Kashmir, is simply not acceptable.

As a central part of the diplomatic effort, Obama must strongly encourage Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to bring key elements of the three interlinked insurgency movements–the Taliban, the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network–to the bargaining table. Elements of those groups that opt not to participate are unlikely to present more than a nuisance challenge to the government in Kabul, if cut off from Pakistani support. China, Pakistan’s ally, which has a vital interest in Central Asia, should be willing to use its influence in Pakistan to make sure Islamabad and Rawalpindi are on board.

Similarly, Obama will have to work to get Iran, India and Russia to help persuade the remnants of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance (mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) to make room in Kabul for an enlarged Pashtun role, including the Taliban, in what could become a stable power-sharing arrangement. The ongoing US-Iran talks can be a useful forum to reach agreement between Washington and Tehran on common interests in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Last, the United States must take the lead in creating a global Marshall Plan to help Afghanistan rebuild its war-shattered economy, build a passable infrastructure and establish the rudiments of a national government. The United States must be realistic about what it can accomplish–and what it cannot. It cannot remake Afghan society, change its cultural mores, modernize its religious outlook, educate its women or reshape the tribal system that prevails in its rural villages. It can break Al Qaeda and, as it exits, leave behind at least the possibility that Afghans will begin to create a sustainable society. But it must recognize, above all, that what it leaves behind won’t be pretty.


Stephen M. Walt

, “High Cost, Low Odds

John Mueller

, “The ‘Safe Haven’ Myth

Selig S. Harrison

, “The Ethnic Split

Priya Satia

, “Attack of the Drones

Manan Ahmed

, “Paranoia Over Pakistan

Mosharraf Zaidi

, “The Best Wall of Defense

For a collection of The Nation‘s best Afghanistan coverage, see our special page of links, “Afghanistan In Crisis.”