Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration today will be a somber affair. Gray storm clouds are slowly replacing the blue skies, and the sour tang of charcoal smoke hangs in the air. The mood among the internationals here is similarly gloomy. So many conversations end with the scratching of heads, with the tacit admission that no idea that has come forward has been big enough to reverse the Afghan government's steady loss of control.
This is not because of the flawed elections or the ghastly killing of foreigners. That's all bad, but it's not doomsday. Nearly two years ago, I heard the distant rumbles, like thunder, of the attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul, which killed seven people. The Afghan government's legitimacy was being questioned then too, and urgent reforms demanded -- without practical result. Two elections had already happened and were marred by fraud. We have been here before, and survived.
No, what is depressing about the situation in Afghanistan is not that it has suddenly gotten much worse but that it steadily fails to get better. By the time U.S. forces left Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army had at least proved itself capable of holding ground against its enemy, albeit with massive U.S. air support. In Afghanistan, by contrast, district after district in the country's troubled south is falling, in effect, under Taliban control. Meanwhile, in the Western nations with troops here, public support for the war is waning.
Would 40,000 more troops turn this around? They would buy time, provided the time is well used. But the real currency of counterinsurgency is not military strength but durability. A person will be more eager to be friends with a neighbor who will still be around in 20 years to repay any favor or grudge. The Taliban offers this. The U.S. does not. The Afghan government might.
The struggle in Afghanistan is all about Afghans sizing each other up; foreigners are mainly just bystanders.
Until an equilibrium of power has been reached among Afghans that is generally unchallenged, pulling out foreign troops would precipitate a civil war. It would be a tawdry and selfdefeating end to the intervention in Afghanistan. Yet, for as long as foreign troops are dominating the conflict with the Taliban, and for as long as the U.S. is seen as the final arbiter of Afghan politics, an equilibrium of power cannot be reached.
The U.S. presence is the Afghan government's safety net, protecting it from the need to take responsibility for the fight against the Taliban. Until Karzai's government sees its survival at stake, it will not play its best game.
So let's fail in Afghanistan. Fail in the right way now, and the Afghans will have a chance of succeeding.
The right kind of failure could look like this: The U.S. has fought hard to expand its coalition in Afghanistan, to include nations even if they bring only half a dozen soldiers and at least as many policy differences. Lose this battle. Shrink the coalition to a manageable size.
The coalition has fought to extend the Afghan government's writ to every part of Afghanistan. In doing so, it has put its soldiers in static bases and had them patrol Afghan cities and towns. They are vulnerable, with little room to maneuver. Large parts of the country remain outside the government's writ anyway; it has done little to follow up military successes.
So lose this battle too. By the end of 2010, withdraw forces to impregnable bases from which they can back up Afghan forces in cases of extreme need. Then there will be an end to the perception that Afghans now have: This is a war waged by foreigners in Afghanistan.
Yes, the Afghan forces will suffer. But they will anyway, one day, because foreign forces will not stay forever. Their chances are better now than they will be once the Taliban has irrevocably established itself in even more locations, and when U.S. patience is thinner than now.
We must also lose the fight to give the Afghans a better government than they have had. It is simply not ours to win. Our views of what makes a good minister are not always right by any means. But, even more important, when a government is seen to be imposed by foreign influence, its failures can be blamed on foreigners. Let every pretense be stripped away. Let the failures of the Afghan government be clearly its failures, and let its successes be just as clearly its own. Expose that government, in other words, to the laws of natural selection. It must adapt or die.
Foreign governments can advise. They can set certain conditions for their aid money, which should be simple and apolitical -- an anti-corruption commission, for example. And once they no longer have ownership of the Afghan government, they will be able to enforce those conditions more effectively.
But the Afghan government must be in the lead, clearly in charge, free to make its own political decisions and to learn its own lessons. And that is what the Afghan people must see.
In the long run, rather than the U.S. putting in more troops, it might have a greater effect by putting them out of harm's way. And it might succeed best by failing first.