The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Difference Two Years Make

Domestic politics still clashes with strategic imperatives in U.S. Afghan policy.

Published on September 1, 2011

In a July 2009 essay about the war in Afghanistan, I asked: “Is It Worth It?”1 My answer then was yes, but only barely. Because the case for war was a close call on the merits, I anticipated that it would be controversial and hard to sustain politically, with the possibility of a left-right antiwar coalition forming against a pro-war center. It is now two years later. Has anything important changed since then?

Some things have. Many now point to Osama bin Laden’s death as a possible turning point, given al-Qaeda’s prominence in the Obama Administration’s case for war in Afghanistan. This could, in principle, tip the calculus toward accelerated withdrawal. But neither the effect of bin Laden’s death on al-Qaeda’s future nor the Administration’s own strategic assessment of its implications is yet clear.

For now, the biggest change since 2009 is the massive increase in American troops beginning in the spring of 2009 and finishing by the fall of 2010. The 30,000 soldier “surge” announced in the President’s December 2009 West Point speech was actually just a part of this increase. Between the time the President took office and the end of September 2010, U.S. troop strength tripled, from about 30,000 on Inauguration Day to about 100,000 now. This buildup was designed to reverse a trend of increasing Taliban political control, especially in Afghanistan’s south and eventually in the east. It has indeed reversed that trend, and may create a meaningful prospect for a negotiated settlement of the war on acceptable terms as a result.

Security, however, is only part of the strategic picture. General Stanley McChrystal’s famous assessment report of June 2009 argued that governance reform was co-equally necessary for success—security improvements without serious changes in Afghan governance would be unsustainable. Yet governance has lagged behind security since then, as have most of the non-kinetic efforts to put the country on its feet. One can argue that security must come first, but unless the political side of the strategy eventually catches up, the result will likely be hollow and temporary. Worse, it could actually make ultimate success less likely. Security progress could well enable a settlement, but any deal would probably legalize the Taliban as a political actor and grant them some role in the government. If the rest of that government remains as corrupt as today’s, the Taliban could easily expand their influence from within in ways more dangerous than today’s military threat from without.

Some have hoped that a “civilian surge” of diplomats, advisers and aid officials would enable the needed governance reforms. The real problem with Afghan governance, however, is not a lack of technical capacity but a surplus of self-interested predation. Reforming a governing system that enriches those in power at the expense of the excluded requires political means—and in particular, it requires an astute use of the leverage that derives from conditionality. In other words, to effect real change in Afghan governance one must be able to combine credible promises of assistance if changes are made with credible threats of penalties if they are not. Today, threats of penalties—especially the penalty of abandonment—are highly credible, but promises of continued support are much less so. Afghans (and Pakistanis) widely expect the United States to leave in response to domestic political and related economic pressures, and to do so regardless of Afghan choices or conditions. The result has been a series of hedging behaviors that aggravate misgovernance and make political improvement all but impossible. If this continues, no surge of civilian aid workers and technical advisers will matter, and the sacrifices of 100,000 American soldiers and their Afghan and foreign allies will have been wasted.

It is not impossible to come up with an effective political strategy for governance reform. The Karzai government is utterly dependent on foreign support for survival, that support is massive, and ongoing security improvements provide a foundation enabling such a strategy. In principle it should be possible to design a strategy marshaling these assets in a program of quiet pressure for reform. Yet the West has so far failed to do so. Part of the reason lies in the difficulty of coordinating numerous allies: The coalition in Afghanistan consists of more than forty sovereign actors who often fail to work together. But a bigger problem is the tension between Afghan strategic requirements and American domestic politics.

Many now believe that growing public disaffection with the war will require an early U.S. withdrawal. This view is widely held not only in the United States but also in Kabul (and Islamabad), and it contributes powerfully to the hedging that undermines reform prospects there. But this view is overstated. The real tension here is not that the U.S. government will be politically required to abandon Afghanistan, but that U.S. politics will undermine the conditionality needed to get governance reform from Kabul. The President is not likely to just walk away from Afghanistan. Nor is this a realistic policy for a possible successor. In narrowly political terms, the astute course would not be a rapid pullout but instead a slow drawdown that uses modest withdrawals to defuse antiwar sentiment while leaving enough troops in theater to prevent any sudden military reversals.

The problem here is twofold. First, such programs are likely to be calendar driven and much too public. This makes it hard to manipulate U.S. support levels to gain leverage in Kabul. Second, the more Americans talk about withdrawal dates and timetables rather than outcomes on the ground, the more Afghans and Pakistanis are encouraged to hedge. Americans want reassurance that this is not an endless commitment, but South Asians want reassurance that the end is not too near. American policies designed mainly for the former undermine the latter. And the result can easily be a policy that invests enough to provide leverage in principle but cannot actually use it effectively—in other words, a policy for losing expensively rather than cheaply.

This tension is real but not inevitably fatal. A careful combination of modest withdrawals with strict conditionality and strategic exploitation for leverage has a reasonable chance of bringing governance reform together with security improvements in a way that enables an acceptable, sustainable negotiated settlement to the war. The Obama Administration’s resource investments have made possible an outcome that was not possible before. They have created the necessary, but not yet the sufficient, conditions for an acceptable result. Realizing that potential, however, will be far from easy; it will require adroit political strategies both at home and in Kabul if the war is not to end in a more expensive version of failure.

Bin Laden’s Death

To unpack these claims, let’s begin with the most newsworthy recent event: Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of American commandos in May. Many now say that this act marks the fulfillment of the goals for which we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, enabling a safe disengagement now. The argument is not without merit. After all, the case for the Afghanistan War has long turned on protecting Americans from terrorism. Al-Qaeda has been the heart of this threat since at least 2001. If the terrorist threat associated with Afghanistan shrinks enough, and if the case for war was already a close call as I have argued, then at some point the argument must tip in favor of a policy of divestment.

Does bin Laden’s death tip the scales? It might, but we cannot know for sure yet. The problem here is twofold. First, it is too early to know what effect bin Laden’s death will have on al-Qaeda. Most terrorist organizations survive decapitation. The United States, for example, killed the head of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, in 2006. He was replaced, and the violence continued. Israeli strikes against Hamas and Hizballah leadership have hardly destroyed those organizations. Russian efforts to kill Chechen separatist leaders failed to defeat the separatist movement. There are exceptions to this rule, of course: The Shining Path in Peru withered after the arrest of Abimael Guzman in 1992, and Aum Shinrikyo was greatly weakened by Shoko Asahara’s arrest in 1995. Which way will al-Qaeda go? It’s too soon to say.

Second, the problem may now be bigger than al-Qaeda. The President has always couched the case for war in Afghanistan not just in keeping its soil from being used as a haven for terrorists but also in preventing Afghanistan from destabilizing its neighbors, especially Pakistan. As an unstable nuclear-armed state facing an Islamist insurgency of its own, Pakistan poses unique dangers to the United States. If Pakistan collapses, its security services could split and usable parts of its nuclear arsenal could find their way into the hands of any of dozens of terrorist organizations active on its territory. This includes al-Qaeda but also, to take but one example, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is the militant group widely held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack in India. At Mumbai, Lashkar-e-Taiba targeted Indians but also deliberately sought out Americans and Jews. It has not yet invested the effort that al-Qaeda has in anti-American terrorism, but it could eventually replace a defunct al-Qaeda as the local standard-bearer for Islamist terror against “the distant enemy.” If al-Qaeda is replaced by a Pakistani successor group with similar intentions and capabilities, and with similar or even greater proximity to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the consequences of Pakistani state collapse would not be much different. Much of the case for war in Afghanistan has long been to prevent Afghan state failure from tipping an unstable Pakistan into collapse, given the perils posed by terrorists there. If an essentially comparable threat changes names from al-Qaeda to some successor organization, then the corresponding case for war in Afghanistan would change little.

The Great Build-Up

Bin Laden’s death may or may not change the war’s strategic landscape, but the changing balance of military power on the ground already has. Between U.S., Afghan and other allied reinforcements, the total strength of Coalition security forces on the ground in Afghanistan has grown from fewer than 230,000 in January 2009 to more than 425,000 in June 2011. We could expect a buildup of this size to change the government’s ability to control people and terrain, and it has. There is now a rough consensus that the Taliban suffered major reversals in 2010 and early 2011, especially in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

Taliban efforts to compensate by opening new fronts in the previously quiet north and west have made some progress, but not enough to offset their losses in the south. The expected counterattacks this summer to regain their lost influence in the south are ongoing, but so far they have failed to re-establish a major presence in any of the districts from which they were driven over the past two years. Instead, they have mostly changed tactics, redirecting attacks from reinforced Coalition forces that have proven too tough to defeat to softer civilian targets such as government officials and civilian traffic on roads and highways. Such methods are risky for insurgents, however, for indiscriminate violence against civilians can undermine any prospect for the public tolerance guerillas need to conceal themselves from better-equipped government soldiers. Guerillas classically try to goad government troops into killing civilians to shift popular support to the insurgency. If guerillas instead resort to targeting civilians themselves, they risk a fatal shift in popular alignment against them.

Of course, the Taliban is still far from being defeated. Most of the Coalition’s effort to date has been in the south; eastern Afghanistan remains problematic. And the country’s north and west, while far less dangerous than the south or east, are not yet settled or secure in the face of likely Taliban efforts to shift resources there. The real question, however, is not about battlefield trends for their own sake, but about their impact on political judgments.

The buildup’s primary effect in the near term is probably on the prospects for negotiation. The Afghan war is unlikely to end with the death or capture of the last combatant on either side; some kind of settlement will surely be the way the fighting ends. In an ideal world, this settlement would so disproportionately favor the government that it would amount to terms for Taliban surrender. More realistically, an acceptable outcome will involve compromise on both sides that enables the violence to end without undermining fundamental U.S. security objectives. Until recently, few had seen much prospect for such a negotiation, because most believed that the Taliban saw themselves as militarily ascendant and thus unwilling to make the compromises needed to make a deal acceptable to the West. The past two years, however, could cause the Taliban leadership to re-evaluate their prospects.

It was one thing for the Taliban to expand their control during the salad days of 2004–08, when they faced a weak opposition of few foreign forces and a small, ill-trained and poorly equipped Afghan army and police, but those days are gone. The Afghan security forces facing them now are more than twice their previous size, better trained, better equipped and supported with about three times as many American troops and a larger allied contingent than the Taliban fought in early 2008 and before. The Afghan Army is still a highly imperfect instrument, to charitably understate the matter. But when partnered with capable foreign allies, they can hold areas that Americans have cleared. Through at least the end of 2012 there will be more than 70,000 such allies to stiffen an Afghan force that will grow to 305,000 soldiers and police. And the post-2012 situation may not be much better for the Taliban: a vague “transition to Afghan security lead” is scheduled for 2014, but a substantial force of U.S. partners and advisers will probably remain behind to harden an even stronger Afghan military and police.

From a Taliban military perspective, this means a high likelihood of at least another three years of declining or flat prospects, followed by uncertainty thereafter. In the meantime, the U.S. counter-leadership campaign is racking up a high toll of Taliban commanders killed and captured. Some estimate that more than 900 of their leaders have been killed since 2010, with some particularly dangerous jobs now filled by their third or fourth Taliban incumbent. These leadership strikes cannot defeat the Taliban militarily, but they powerfully reduce the appeal of trying to wait us out in a protracted war. Perhaps fanatical Taliban will persist anyway, holding out for a chance to turn the war around in some three to four years, willing to take their chances trying to survive continuous U.S. drone strikes and commando raids until then. But it is entirely possible that at least some factions will consider the results of this summer’s counterattacks, calculate the likely cost and risk of fighting through another three or more long, lean years, and conclude that some sort of compromise political settlement might not be such a bad deal.

Of course, this depends on the terms of the deal. If the West’s only offer is surrender and prison, the Taliban will fight on to the bitter end, come what may. There must be some degree of compromise on our side, as well as theirs. As it happens, we can live with a degree of compromise relative to our original war aims while preserving the central security stakes for which we have fought. We do not require either the radical centralization or the strict Taliban exclusion prescribed by the 2001 Bonn model. There is room for a legal political role for the Taliban within the Afghan government that does not undermine our fundamental security requirements. It should be possible, for example, to offer designated seats for representatives of some Taliban factions in the Afghan Parliament, or in provincial or district governments in the south or east, as long as there are practical, enforceable limits on their ability to use territory as a haven to launch militant violence.

The natural choice for such limits would be democratic electoral sanction. Except around Kandahar for a very limited time many years ago, the Taliban have not enjoyed a broad base of support. In repeated polls over the years, they have never drawn more than about 15 percent support nationally. Even in their birthplace, the conservative Afghan south, they are today a distinctly minority preference; people remember well their cruel and dysfunctional time in power. Elsewhere their support varies from modest to negligible. This makes them unlikely to agree to lay down their arms in exchange for a chance to run for national office; some extra-democratic set aside of seats or offices or positions would probably be needed to persuade them to settle. But this also means that the prospects for containing their influence once in the government are reasonably good as long as the non-Taliban elements of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan have something to offer their citizens as an alternative to Taliban rule.

This in turn means that reining in government predation is a necessary component of any acceptable negotiating strategy. If a deal gave the Taliban a legal foothold in an Afghan government that was too corrupt to command its people’s loyalty, it could lead to disaster. Continued predation by non-Taliban officials could eventually swing public support to a legalized Taliban that, while disliked, promises honesty and justice in exchange for public toleration of its repressive ideology. If so, then an initially limited, constrained role could grow into one that threatened core U.S. interests by enabling Taliban officials to foment terrorism or subversion from Afghan soil. If government predation can be controlled—not eliminated, but at least capped and constrained—then the Taliban can safely be given a legal role in Afghan politics, with the natural unpopularity of militant ideology acting as a check on their ability to enable violence. If corruption cannot be reined in, then a settlement could leave us unable to secure our interests moving forward.

Governance reforms thus cannot be put off indefinitely. It is tempting to assume that the near-term requirement for security should push governance reform into the distant future, but in fact we cannot safely delay an aggressive governance campaign. Not only would doing so risk undermining any prospective reconciliation deal; it would also undermine our ability to provide a degree of security that could actually permit us to draw down our forces and hand off responsibility to a capable Afghan National Security Force. Civilians systematically dispossessed by a predatory government will inevitably hold their noses and turn to the Taliban for help, and the Taliban have been very astute in exploiting this to position themselves as the defenders of the dispossessed. If civilians who have been wronged—or expect to be wronged—continue to turn to what they see as the least bad option, then no density of security forces will be sufficient to exclude the Taliban. The Coalition has made important progress on security since 2009; it needs without further delay to do the same with governance.

The Politics of War

There are important interactions between these strategic requirements and the demands of U.S. domestic politics, especially approaching the presidential election of 2012. Many now believe that the war’s dwindling popularity among Americans will soon force the Administration to reverse course and radically reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. If so, the progress noted above could quickly reverse. If a corrupt Afghan government proves unable to motivate its troops without major American stiffening and an emboldened Taliban responds to American withdrawal with new offensives, then a steep, politically mandated U.S. drawdown could lead to Karzai’s collapse, and Afghanistan could descend into 1990s-style civil warfare despite the progress of recent years.

The real challenge, however, is not that Congress will defund the war, or that domestic politics will compel a precipitous withdrawal. It is much more likely that the tactics of political management used to prevent these outcomes will undermine the strategy, even if those tactics leave the United States with a significant troop presence in Afghanistan for years to come. The result could be the worst of both worlds: a slow, expensive failure as opposed to a quicker, cheaper one. This is because the politics of the war encourage moderate but calendar-bound, publicly declared and scheduled withdrawals of the kind the President announced on June 22. Pro-war conservatives criticize this as leaving the military without the troops they need to defeat the Taliban. Certainly, more troops are usually better for defeating any enemy, but the real problem with this approach is its effect on Afghan politics: By making it hard to achieve credible conditionality in U.S. assistance, this approach undermines the Afghan governance reforms that are now more critical for success than further military progress.

The war is certainly losing support among American voters. In my 2009 essay, I argued that war in Afghanistan would prove a hard sell and be increasingly controversial; it has. The high-water mark for public support of the war under this Administration came in March 2009, when 56 percent of Americans in a Washington Post/ABC News poll said the war was worth fighting. By March of 2011 that figure had fallen to 31 percent. A CNN poll in June showed only 18 percent of the public supporting current troop levels, with 74 percent favoring withdrawals and 39 percent going so far as to say that all U.S. troops should be brought home immediately, a figure nine points higher than in a comparable poll conducted just a month earlier. Congressional support for the war is falling in parallel. In July 2010, a House resolution expressing dissatisfaction with the war and calling on the Administration to identify a calendar for withdrawal drew 162 votes; a similar resolution this past May got 204, just six votes short of passing.

In 2009, I also argued against the then-conventional view that Republicans would support the war, with opposition coming overwhelmingly from Democrats. I predicted, rather, that the Republican Party itself could split on the war if battlefield results proved lackluster. It now looks as though I may have understated the case. As a result of the surge, the Taliban’s military momentum is largely broken, yet Republican opposition to the war has grown sharply. Of the 204 votes in favor of the May antiwar resolution in the House, 26 of them were Republican. Anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist has come out against the war, as has George Will. Of the nine declared Republican presidential candidates in mid-June, three have explicitly advocated accelerated withdrawal (Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson). The frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has begun to move in that direction. Only Tim Pawlenty has explicitly backed a forceful prosecution of the war. If these trends continue, a Left-Right coalition against the center could eventually defund the war in the Congress, or a Republican could be elected President on an antiwar platform with similar effect.

Yet the central political fact about the war today is not actually the public’s preference on war, but the issue’s low salience. The public increasingly opposes the war, but it is the economy and jobs, not Afghanistan, that dominate American politics. In 1968, Vietnam ended Lyndon B. Johnson’s hopes for a second term. In 2006, Iraq played a central role in the Republicans’ loss of the House and Senate. But in the 2010 midterm elections, Afghanistan was virtually invisible in a campaign with unusually high turnout and a major shift in partisan control. Unlike 1968 or 2006, war is not simply the decisive issue in American politics today.

Polling supports this impression. In a May 2011 Fox News survey, only 4 percent of respondents said that the wars in either Afghanistan or Iraq were issues “the President and Congress should focus on right now.” The economy, jobs, the deficit and government spending, by contrast, attracted more than 70 percent of respondents. In a January 2011 Gallup poll, Afghanistan ranked tenth on a list of issues said to be extremely or very important for the President and Congress to address in the coming year. In the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections, Gallup asked respondents to rank the issues that would most influence their vote: Afghanistan ranked eighth. In an October 2009 Gallup poll, only 18 percent of respondents rated Afghanistan as the top priority for Presidential action; the same question yielded only 11 percent of respondents in 2008. Nor is Afghanistan an issue provoking mass protest marches on the Pentagon and demonstrations outside Congressional district offices. Few lawmakers receive significant volumes of constituent mail on the war. And news coverage of the war is radically less than for Iraq in 2006–07. In the 18 months from January 1, 2009 to June 1, 2010, the New York Times ran 275 front page stories on Afghanistan; in the comparable interval of January 1, 2006 to June 1, 2007, the figure for Iraq was more than 800. The decisive issue in the 2012 elections will surely be the economy, not Afghanistan.

This does not mean domestic politics are irrelevant and the war can be run in whatever way the generals want. It does mean, however, the constraints are less binding than many assume. And it means the nature of constraints on political action is different.

Afghanistan is unlikely to be an issue that either the President or the Republican front-runner will want to make a priority. In narrow political terms, their incentives are to keep the issue on voters’ backburners. But neither rapid withdrawal nor staying the course is well suited to defusing the issue. For the President, rapid withdrawal risks a sudden military reversal and vivid battlefield imagery of defeat, which could vault Afghanistan back into public consciousness and turn the war into a salient issue in the 2012 elections. If so, the blame would go straight to the commander-in-chief. The surest way to avoid such a failure would be to keep today’s troop strength in place through at least the election. But this would look to progressives like a simple rubber-stamping of military requests for apparently endless warfare. Progressives already feel betrayed by a President they think has tacked too far to the right. They would read a no-withdrawal policy in Afghanistan as a deliberate slap in the face and could move from frustration to anger. Rage makes issues salient not just for the angered but for everyone (see “Tea Party, 2010”).

If rapid withdrawal risks politically salient military failure, and if zero withdrawal risks politically salient progressive anger, then slow withdrawal with maximum public attention to the fact of drawdown offers a way to minimize political risk. By leaving substantial U.S. forces in the country, this approach makes decisive military reversals unlikely, at least for the medium term. Visibly beginning withdrawals takes much of the wind out of antiwar progressives’ sails, avoids the impression of contemptuous disregard for their views and puts war opponents in the position of arguing over the relative speed of withdrawals in progress. None of this is likely to please either the war’s opponents, who will see it as too forceful, or its supporters, who will see it as too weak. And a lukewarm approach will face plenty of criticism in the immediate aftermath of major policy announcements. But military centrism mutes the severity and duration of criticism. For an issue that is otherwise unlikely to change many votes in 2012, keeping the debate muted and the issue quiet is probably the safest course politically. Domestic politics thus creates stronger incentives for slow but public drawdowns than for rapid departures from Afghanistan.

A slow, publicly announced drawdown would be far from ideal in military terms. Counterinsurgency is notoriously labor intensive, and the withdrawals already announced could leave the Coalition unable to swing forces to the east in 2012 to roll back Taliban influence there. But it isn’t likely to yield disaster. The whole point of gradualism is to prevent sudden failure. The Afghan army and police would still be growing, and there would still be substantial U.S. forces in Afghanistan to backstop them for years to come. Although it would undermine further expansion, slow withdrawal would probably still enable the Coalition to hold its recent gains in the south and elsewhere.

The net result could easily be a stalemate. One could argue that holding the line this way is enough. Continued Afghan security force growth, in this view, would eventually enable indigenous forces to take over the war as American forces go home. And even stalemate creates important negotiating incentives for the Taliban.

The real problem with this approach, however, is less military than political: Its domestic purpose undermines the conditionality needed to make governance progress in Afghanistan. If the aim is to mollify antiwar critics in the United States, the policy must be explicit, public and attached to concrete deadlines and timetables. “Conditions-based withdrawals” can be claimed as the policy, but if the conditions were real, the drawdowns would be uncertain. To combine a slow, half-a-loaf withdrawal with conditionality that could preclude even those withdrawals leaves critics with practically nothing. Hence we get dates and schedules, the whole point of which are to make it politically costly to back away from them regardless of events in Afghanistan. Yet a calendar-driven, unconditional, publicly announced drawdown schedule signals to Afghans that their fears of U.S. abandonment are both real and unrelated to anything they do in the meantime.

Since the United States handed the war over to NATO in 2003, at least, many Afghan officials and local powerbrokers have feared abandonment and the subsequent fall of the government. This fear provides a powerful incentive for predation. On the one hand, it makes patient, long-term investment in an honest, democratic future seem like a fool’s game. On the other, it encourages the powerful to steal now while they still can to build a comfortable exile abroad. Cognitive psychologists say that prior expectation gives a powerful boost to incoming information that seems to confirm that expectation. For Afghans, U.S. announcements of withdrawal schedules play exactly this role, supercharging pre-existing fears of an early exit.

In principle, the right way to compel governance reform in Afghanistan is to use the massive flow of U.S. military assistance and economic aid as leverage on Afghan officials who now benefit from predatory misgovernance. The sheer scale of this assistance, and the Afghan government’s utter dependence on it, make it a powerful source of influence—in principle. To date, however, massive outside aid has mostly made the problem worse by fueling the very corruption that so undermines our prospects. To realize the potential inherent in our aid requires a credible message that the benefits will be sustained if we get reform in exchange but withdrawn if reform doesn’t happen. Threats of withdrawal are now very credible, but every announcement of a drawdown timetable makes promises of support much less believable by playing into pre-existing fears. And the lack of conditionality inherent in calendar announcements makes U.S. leverage even weaker.

So domestic politics do conflict with strategic exigencies in Afghanistan, but not by inducing precipitous withdrawal. The real problem is the hedging incentives produced by publicly announced partial withdrawal timetables, which will be used to avoid political pressure for a precipitous withdrawal. How do we overcome this problem?

 

Calls for zero troop withdrawals are misguided. Even if the President accepted this, it would so energize his opposition as to undermine the policy anyway. Perhaps the best way to produce a political coalition for precipitous withdrawal would be to insist on no withdrawals at all. Moreover, the whole problem with governance reform is credible conditionality—not an unconditional promise to stay in Afghanistan essentially forever. Unconditional promises offer no more leverage than unconditional threats.

Instead, the United States should use all available diplomatic channels to counter the influence of American domestic political vicissitudes on Afghans by conveying a consistent message of three simultaneous propositions about conditionality: One, the reality of the substantial residual force the United States is prepared to retain in Afghanistan even as forces fall below 70,000; two, America’s commitment to provide significant military and economic assistance for many years to come, if Afghans make good on their own responsibilities to reform; and three, America’s willingness to accelerate troop withdrawals or withhold training, aid and assistance unless Kabul produces real reforms.

This is a very hard message to get across. The more U.S. diplomats emphasize the promises (one and two), the less credible they make the threats (three) and vice versa; threats and reassurances are inherently in tension with one another. The domestic exigencies of U.S. politics make balancing these opposites even harder. U.S. diplomacy in Afghanistan has hardly been known for its message discipline or consistency, and striking the balance required here will require a combination of subtlety and control that would be challenging under the best of conditions.

To say something is difficult is not to say it’s impossible, however. The United States did something like this in Iraq in 2007, when deft U.S. diplomacy pressured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into accepting a series of critical sectarian compromises he had initially opposed—and this happened under difficult wartime conditions. This is never easy, but with the arrival of a new U.S. diplomatic team—Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Special Representative Marc Grossman and General John Allen—now is a particularly propitious moment to realign American political strategy in Afghanistan with the exigencies of the Afghan war’s politics in America.

Another difficult but not impossible task is to shape the war’s domestic politics to facilitate this diplomacy. Calendar deadlines and drawdown discussions may be inevitable given the demands of a looming campaign season. Even if the President avoided them, antiwar Republican candidates would be increasingly less inclined to. But the more the emphasis is placed on conditions rather than calendars, the easier the diplomats’ job will be. And the war’s low salience in American politics enables policy considerations to play a larger role relative to partisan politics here than in many other matters confronting the nation. Domestic politics often pose military dilemmas that require elected officials to make hard choices. To the extent that these choices can lean toward conditionality and away from fixed withdrawal schedules, this will make a hard diplomatic job easier.

Of course, this assumes that change is possible in Afghanistan—that some combination of social upheaval, institutionalized corruption, or resignation in the face of past failures has not made reform on the needed scale unattainable. Failure is certainly possible. And if the West does not soon make governance a real priority, then failure is very likely indeed, regardless of our troop commitments. But we should remember that Afghanistan does not need to become Switzerland for our core security interests to be realized. Sustainable bounds on predation—not an end to corruption or a spotless record of public stewardship—are what is needed. In particular, an end to today’s widespread land grabs by the powerful would go a long way toward establishing a tolerable equilibrium in which Taliban influence could be contained democratically, even if milder forms of corruption continued. Given the leverage at our disposal, we should in principle be able to drive a series of political bargains in which such an equilibrium can be maintained. The challenge today is to convert this potential in principle into a plan for action that balances the needs of Afghan and American politics.

In light of all this, is the war still worth it? It remains a close call now, just as it was in 2009. Events since then have created important openings for progress, but nothing about Afghanistan is easy. And realizing the potential created by recent events requires a combination of deft, consistent diplomacy and domestic political restraint. In 2009, it looked like the war’s domestic politics would be hard given its close call on the merits. In 2011, the central challenge is to prevent the war’s domestic politics from undermining the war’s prospects on the merits by interfering with essential political reforms in Kabul.

1“Is It Worth It? The Difficult Case for War in Afghanistan”, The American Interest (July/August 2009).

Stephen Biddle is Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.