In the aftermath of 9/11 the United States intervention in Afghanistan was somewhat a no-brainer. The Taliban regime had provided a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and would not (or could not) surrender Osama Bin Laden and his followers. So strong was the global outrage at the attack on the twin towers that NATO whole heartedly supported the United States toppling the Taliban and provided troops as peacekeepers.

As we all know, the opportunity was squandered. Worried about casualties the United States never committed enough boots on the ground. It first relied on the Northern Alliance to do the fighting on the ground, a motley crew that contained many warlords with horrendous human rights records. The limited American presence on the ground probably helped Osama Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. Having toppled the Taliban with ridiculous ease, the Bush administration then pursued the Iraq invasion squandering global goodwill and failing to secure the peace.

With limited boots on the ground the United States relied instead on hitting the Taliban with air strikes from remote controlled drones. The civilian casualties caused by mistaken strikes sapped the goodwill that ordinary Pashtuns had to the United States for getting rid of the Taliban.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to expand the military presence in Afghanistan and delivered shortly after taking office. A further review was promised after the Afghan presidential election. The leaking of General McChrystal report calling for more troops caused a firestorm in Washington in last month. The left is increasingly tired of spilling blood in Afghanistan without an end point. Some commentators on the right, notably George Will, have joined in. Eager to show themselves as being strong on terror the Republican Party has generally lined up behind the General’s uniform.

As the President and his advisors confer on the next course, it must be asked, what does the United States hope to achieve in Afghanistan? What is the United States fighting for. Commentators such as Fareed Zakaria have noted that the Afghan war is not at present a war with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is holed up in its Pakistani hideouts and has not made a major comeback in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is essentially the next round of the civil war that has plagued the country since the toppling of the monarchy in the 1970s.

Much has been written about the success of the Iraqi surge last year. However the surge would not have worked without (a) the emergence of a working Iraqi army that could shoulder the burden of fighting, and (b) obtaining the support of Sunni Sheikhs in Anbar province and other affected regions.

Neither of the two seems to have happened in Afghanistan. The Afghan national army, which on paper is about 90,000 men, seems to be a figment of imagination. The other unpalatable option would be to rely on the warlords whose actions brought Afghanistan to disaster in the 1990s. The support of the Pashtun tribes will depend on a working government that can provide security and services. On this matter Hamid Karzai has been a miserable failure.

The memories of the popular leader who embodied the hope of a better Afghan future when the loya jirga installed him as President seems a distant memory. Racked with corruption and incompetence and unable to prevent the President’s kin from feathering their nests, the Karzai government compounded this by rigging the presidential election this August (which he would have likely won in spite of his incompetence).

Unfortunately the United States and Afghanistan are stuck with Karzai. Whatever any “surge” in Afghanistan achieves, it will rely on the feckless Karzai to hold the peace.

The rapid rise of the Taliban in 1994 was in no large part because of their ability to deliver a form of security to a war torn nation. If an Afghan government cannot provide a modicum of security history could repeat itself and any surge would be in vain.  Even if the United States does increase its troop component in Afghanistan, the war cannot be “won” until the Afghans are doing the bulk of the fighting. This will involve finding the hypothetical Afghan army on whose training the United States has lavished billions of dollars and convincing the Pashtun tribes that their long term interests involve turning their guns on the Taliban (or bribing them to do so).

And then there is Pakistan. As Fareed Zakaria (and even Vice President Biden) note, there is an immense imbalance of resources allocated to Afghanistan as compared to Pakistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have taken refuge. For the last 20 years Pakistan has played with fire. It has backed jihadists in Afghanistan and steered them to attack India in Kashmir, all at a tremendous cost to its own society. Its madrassas teem with millions of children fed on a diet of religious fundamentalism. Any solution in Afghanistan will require the fixing of Pakistan and an end to its cynical direction of religious extremists against its neighbors.  If the Taliban can retreat into Pakistan and regroup with impunity this conflict will never be resolved.

More troops on the ground is a short term solution. It can reduce the civilian casualties from drone air strikes and it give the initial burst of security to start bringing the Pashtun tribes on board. However, it cannot be an open ended commitment. The optimism and the opportunity of 2002 are gone. Ultimately Afghanistan must learn to stand on its wobbly feat. Unfortunately, it is likely that it may fall, and all the king’s horses and all the kings men will not be able to put it together again.

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