Toward an Afghan strategy

President Obama must be careful to avoid sinking into a quagmire

The Obama administration is shifting its aims in Afghanistan, thanks to Harmid Karzai’s clumsy effort to rig recent elections. Suddenly Washington is seeing the Afghan president for what he really is: head of a mafia nation in which drugs and dollars fund a network of corruption that permeates the country.

Which of course raises these questions: Why should Americans pay—and die—to protect such a government? And how can we succeed with such a tainted partner, one that most Afghans see as our puppet? What, exactly, is our vital interest in Afghanistan?

These are difficult questions to answer, which we suspect is part of the reason the Obama administration is taking its time in marking out a new strategy, one that is meant to occupy a middle ground between significant troop escalation and outright withdrawal.

This strategy would cede sparsely populated rural areas to the Taliban while making urban areas more secure and training the Afghan forces. At the same time, the U.S. would reach out to regional powers—warlords, sheiks and governors—with ties to the Taliban to purchase their loyalty and cooperation, as we did with Sunni sheiks in Iraq. The Americans may have to hold their noses, but that’s the way things have been done in Afghanistan for centuries.

There is no military solution in Afghanistan. The most we can hope for is a stable central government that can limit the presence of terrorists. Afghanistan is just one of many strategic challenges in the region and in terms of danger is dwarfed by the problem of Pakistan. The Obama administration would be wise to establish modest goals, husband its resources, protect American lives, and work toward gradual withdrawal.