Back to the Future in Afghanistan

The circle seems to be closing in on the Obama administration’s “regional approach” to Afghanistan. Supply route problems in Pakistan and Central Asia seemingly give Russia an enormous amount of influence over the success or failure of any ambitious plans to create a stable Afghan democracy. Not surprisingly, there are now reports of goalposts growing legs, with preventing the Taliban and al-Qaida from threatening America the new priorities. (Imagine reading that back on Sept. 12, 2001.) And Richard Holbrooke hasn’t even had a chance to dust off his elbow-twisting chops in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

To my mind, this inevitable reality check raises two questions. First, how do we achieve even these more modest goals without destabilizing Pakistan, thereby creating the need for a nation-building effort that would make Afghanistan look like a cakewalk?

Second, what are the longterm implications for Gen. David Petraeus’ COIN model of stability and reconstruction operations? So far, the military and political results in Iraq are significant yet fragile and uncertain yet fragile, in that order. But only the military component seems to have been institutionalized to any significant degree, as the final audit on Iraq reconstruction efforts (via Abu Muqawama) makes clear.

Clearly the challenge of asymmetric warfare and of local insurgencies creating transnational threats isn’t going to magically disappear. But if the Petraeus approach to addressing that challenge is already being bagged in Afghanistan, what replaces it?