Is Afghanistan a lost cause?

Obama announced tonight that an additional 30,000 troops will be sent to Afghanistan, along with that the withdrawal will begin in 2011. The most common rationale that I’ve heard about this decision is that pulling out will give victory to the Taliban and that the U.S. must finish what it has started. On the surface this sounds like a logical argument. But it must be asked whether additional troops will be able to accomplish any of the objectives for Afghanistan: crushing the Taliban and Al Qaeda, stabilizing the border with Pakistan, preventing civil strife, and installing the semblance of a functioning democracy.

The Karzai government holds little to no authority outside Kabul. Attempting to keep the country as a single nation state by centralizing power in Karzai’s hands will further make apparent the tribal factionalism within. Instead of backing his corrupt government, a better strategy would be to spread regional power as broadly as possible among warlords and tribal leaders, in effect creating a federation. Rather than overwhelm the Taliban and Al Qaeda by force, the plan should be to bring the locals to the American side. For one, this would involve doing away with civilian-killing drone attacks. For another, it would be to make arrangements through the U.N., Human Rights Watch, and any other willing NGO to take all Karzai and American collaborators out of the country during the withdrawal instead of leaving them behind to be massacred as happened in Vietnam and Cambodia.

History has shown time and again that empires wear themselves out at the seams when they start to rely on military force over political and economic incentives. The British and Russians had already found the limits of their empire’s grasp in Afghanistan. For the U.S. there is no longer any of the neoconservative idealism about spreading freedom and democracy to the Middle East in this goal. Ideology, it seems, has given way to realpolitik for good. Whatever the outcome is years down the road, the U.S. isn’t likely to come out of this unscathed.

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