The Afghanistan Narrative After London

With the exception of a few details, it’s safe to say that the London conference on Afghanistan hit all the right notes, by which I mean the politically necessary ones. Afghanization will continue apace, regardless of the Afghans’ actual capacity to shoulder it, and negotiating with the Taliban has gotten the formal seal of approval, regardless of the Taliban’s actual willingness to negotiate. NATO can announce member states’ increased troop commitments, regardless of member states’ intentions of following through, while Western governments can simultaneous announce troop drawdowns over the course of 2011, regardless of whether the security situation permits them.

But as cynical as that sounds, I’m not sure it’s necessarily reason for pessimism. Here’s why.

It’s hard not to be struck by the dramatic shift that’s taken place in the narrative of the Afghanistan War over the course of 2009. In the space of 12 months, we’ve gone from a Taliban resurgence that threatened the capitals on both sides of the Durand Line, with Pakistani nukes hanging in the balance, to a conference dedicated to formulating an exit strategy, albeit a less-than-realistic one — with a nail-biting stretch of strategic review-induced hysteria in between.

The question is whether anything has actually changed on the ground. From what I gathered from talking to people in Prague, the actual challenges facing stability operations in Afghanistan remain daunting. But many agreed that the U.S. recommitment to that effort had shifted the momentum in our favor.

It’s also worth considering that the “Taliban insurgency” (in quotes to reflect that it’s not monolithic) does not enjoy unbounded room for expansion, and in fact might be reaching the limits of its potential energy. As I mentioned in the write-up of the Prague conference, the insurgency itself was considered barely worth discussing. When it was mentioned, it was to underline the degree to which it is an unpopular alternative to anything else on offer — with the exception of continued civil war, or a stable Afghan government that appoints local officials who victimize the population.

A more efficient Afghan-Western reconstruction effort would certainly help build trust, confidence and credibility. But it’s not as if the Taliban are promising better roads, schools and bridges. The only positive social needs they’re able to fill are protection against predatory government officials and effective dispute resolution, which often go hand in hand.

They maintain their ability to contribute negative social inputs, such as violence and instability, that undermine trust in the coalition’s ability to deliver on its promises. But it’s safe to assume that the increase in U.S. troops will progressively impact that ability. And if it is true that the insurgency has reached its upper limit in terms of local buy-in, then there’s nowhere to go but down.

What’s been put in place this year is precisely what the people who have been saying that Afghanistan was still “possible” have been recommending all along: a well-resourced political approach using civil-military stability operations. There might even be a silver lining to the neglect of the war effort over thepast few years, if the Taliban resurgence it made possible reminded Afghans of the real choice before them, which is actually no choice.

It’s very possible the optimists are wrong. But if that’s the case, then the argument for withdrawal come 2011 will be even stronger.

It’s also very likely that, even if the optimists are right, the mission will take longer than the mid-2011 timeline currently being floated. But if they are right, there will be clear signs of improvement that will either permit a preliminary drawdown or else justify a measured prolongation of our commitment.

So while I continue to watch the spectacle of the Afghanistan kabuki theater with a cynical eye, it does nothing to change my position — somewhere between withholding judgment and guarded optimism — regarding the possible outcome on the ground.

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