Several months ago a leading American expert on Afghanistan was meeting with Meghan O’Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush White House. The topic at hand was the attitude of Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani leader, toward the revived Taliban insurgents operating out of Pakistani territory. Musharraf’s government seemed (as it does now) to be willfully ignoring the Taliban, or perhaps even providing them with safe harbor and assistance. Why would Musharraf do either?

The expert explained that many factors shape the difficult Pakistani-Afghan relationship. He pointed to the decades-long conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan and mentioned the Durand Line, the supposed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 1,600-mile-long line, imposed on Afghanistan by the British in 1893, divides Pashtun and Baluch regions and separates Afghanistan from territory it has claimed as its own. Afghanistan has never officially recognized the Durand Line, which has been a great source of strife between the two countries.

By referring to the Durand Line, the expert was noting that US efforts in the region are complicated by pre-9/11 history. O’Sullivan, according to this expert (who wishes not to be named), didn’t know what the Durand Line was. The expert was stunned. O’Sullivan is the most senior Bush Administration official handling Afghanistan policy. If she wasn’t familiar with this basic point, US policy-making on Afghanistan was in trouble.

After Iraq, Afghanistan is the most profound foreign policy mess the Bush Administration faces. Five years after US forces chased the Taliban out of Kabul, the Taliban are resurgent, adopting tactics used by Iraqi rebels. The central government of President Hamid Karzai remains weak and cannot provide security or basic services to its people. Reconstruction has slowed dramatically. Poppy cultivation has exploded. Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are affecting the military campaigns against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And the consensus among Afghanistan experts is that many Afghans, seeing little direct benefit from the lagging reconstruction efforts, have lost faith in the US-backed government. According to recent Congressional testimony by Barnett Rubin, a New York University professor who has advised the United Nations on Afghanistan, a former Afghan minister recently said, “The conditions in Afghanistan are ripe for fundamentalism.”

Yet George Bush has no senior-level official responsible for policies and actions in Afghanistan. “The situation is worsening,” notes former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. “We have to have someone in government responsible for the whole picture–military, economic assistance and political. There’s a nexus between each. But there’s not one person in the government designated to be in charge of that nexus. It could be the ambassador. It could be someone else–if they have resources and clout and accountability. But this Administration has not been keen on accountability.”

O’Sullivan is not the issue. She is a protégé of Richard Haass, who left the State Department as policy director in July 2003 and became president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and she is neither a neocon nor an ideologue. She has even earned the suspicion of conservatives for having proposed engaging with Iran and for suggesting–before 9/11–that it is unproductive to brand a state a “rogue regime.” The problem is that O’Sullivan, who is in her mid-30s, is not an expert in the field and does not have the stature to take on heavyweights in the Administration (say, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld). Worse, she has two briefs: Afghanistan and Iraq. Either project would (or should) be more than a 24/7 job for a senior Administration official. As a Congressional aide quips, “It’s too much to ask anyone to handle two policy failures at once. And what we have now is Administration policy-making that happens mostly by drift, with the White House not caring all that much about it. They’d rather see Afghanistan as ‘mission accomplished’ and move on.” (The White House said O’Sullivan was not available for an interview.)

It has been a year and a half since the Bush Administration had a major player covering Afghanistan. That was Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American named ambassador to Afghanistan and a special presidential envoy in 2003. He was well schooled in the nation’s history and culture and its internecine conflicts. In 2002, as a special envoy, he oversaw the loya jirga that led to the establishment of a government there. He later negotiated with regional Afghan leaders. “He would routinely jump into a car and go over to Karzai’s office to give him marching orders, for good or bad,” says a Congressional aide who witnessed such occasions. A neocon advocate of the Iraq War and a disciple of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, Khalilzad had direct lines into the White House and the Pentagon. In March 2005 he was named US ambassador to Iraq.

Khalilzad was replaced by Ronald Neumann, a career foreign service office, who previously served in Iraq and Bahrain. Neumann lacked the standing of Khalilzad. “He tries, but he’s not able to get stuff done,” Rubin says. “He does not have the clout. When I ask him for something difficult, he says, ‘It will never get through the bureaucracy.'”

Until this past March, Maureen Quinn, who had been US ambassador to Qatar, was the State Department’s coordinator for Afghanistan. But she, too, did not wield much influence. After she left the post the Administration appointed no successor. Instead, her duties were split among four State Department officials: Richard Boucher, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, and three of his deputies. But Boucher’s bureau is responsible for thirteen countries, including Pakistan, India and Kazakhstan. The Afghanistan and Central Asia brief was added to his bureau only this past February. “The coordination issue has been up in the air for some time,” says Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, “and there is less money now. And the country is facing the consequences.”

In Washington the bottom line in dollars usually represents the bottom line in policy, and US funding for reconstruction and security assistance in Afghanistan has been on the decline. From fiscal year 2005 to the next, it fell from $4.3 billion to $3 billion. The Administration’s request for 2007 funding is $1.2 billion. Of that only about $800 million is tagged for reconstruction and development. “You can’t rebuild a country for $1 billion,” notes a senior Democratic staffer in the Senate. “To me it says we’re just going to hope that things get better without making the necessary commitment.” And Congress has not treated Afghanistan as a top-of-the-list concern. (Senate majority leader Bill Frist recently said that the Taliban and their allies ought to be brought into the government. His office later claimed he had meant to refer only to tribal Afghans possibly sympathetic to the Taliban.)

Not only is there no one at the helm of the underfunded policy; the Bush Administration has been unable to forge a consistent approach to the critical issue of Pakistan and the Taliban. In June Ambassador Neumann sidestepped a question about whether Pakistan was supporting the Taliban. In August Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command, said that he “absolutely does not believe” that Pakistan has been colluding with the Taliban. But in September Marine Gen. James Jones, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, which has just assumed command of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, told a Senate committee that it was “generally accepted” that the Taliban maintain their headquarters in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province. That would suggest that Pakistan–or elements within its government–is assisting the Taliban. (On October 7 Pakistani police arrested more than forty Taliban suspects, but said they had nabbed no significant Taliban.)

How should the Bush Administration deal with the thorny matter of Pakistan and the Taliban? The Afghanistan desks at the State Department and the National Security Council ponder this and other issues daily, but nongovernment Afghanistan watchers say they see few, if any, signs that senior Administration officials are fully grappling with this dicey subject and the other challenges of Afghanistan.

“The most sensible conversations I have are with three- and four-star generals on the ground there,” Rubin says. “The diplomats–they recycle through and have no experience in the area. Everyone in the region assumes that the United States is not serious about succeeding in Afghanistan.” Robert Oakley, a former career foreign service officer who was ambassador to Pakistan, notes, “In 2004 I saw a huge surge of interest in the White House, with the President getting directly involved. Now I see less interest. I feel less hopeful. People coming back from Afghanistan are not optimistic.” Richard Lugar, Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently said at a hearing that the problems in Afghanistan have “become so daunting that there is a feeling, not of confusion or frustration, but of almost general despair.”

In September George W. Bush brought Karzai and Musharraf to Washington for a dinner together. With the two bickering in dueling CNN interviews over the Taliban matter, Bush remarked, “It will be interesting for me to watch the body language of these two leaders to determine how tense things are.” (Referring to that comment, Armitage exclaims, “I didn’t believe it. This is not a high school football game.”) There was no immediate indication Bush achieved much during the meal. But the day before, the President told Karzai, “I know there are some in your country who wonder whether or not America has got the will to do the hard work necessary to help you succeed. We have got that will.” Perhaps. But no one to do the work.