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Richard Haass, a Republican of the "realist" (opposed to "neoconservative") school of foreign policy thought, has joined those who say Afghanistan is not winnable and strategy should be adjusted accordingly. Haass, who was appointed to ad hoc government posts by both Presidents Bush and was a close adviser to Colin Powell at the time of the run-up to the Iraq War, is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His commentary - We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It - was published Sunday in the on-line edition of Newsweek. He calls what's happening "very much Barack Obama’s war of choice, a point that the president underscored recently by picking Gen. David Petraeus to lead an intensified counterinsurgency effort there."

Today the counterinsurgency strategy that demanded all those troops is clearly not working. The August 2009 election that gave Karzai a second term as president was marred by pervasive fraud and left him with less legitimacy than ever. While the surge of U.S. forces has pushed back the Taliban in certain districts, the Karzai government has been unable to fill the vacuum with effective governance and security forces that could prevent the Taliban’s return. So far the Obama administration is sticking with its strategy; indeed, the president went to great lengths to underscore this when he turned to Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul. No course change is likely until at least December, when the president will find himself enmeshed in yet another review of his Afghan policy.

This will be Obama’s third chance to decide what kind of war he wants to fight in Afghanistan, and he will have several options to choose from, even if none is terribly promising. The first is to stay the course: to spend the next year attacking the Taliban and training the Afghan Army and police, and to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in July 2011 only to the extent that conditions on the ground allow. Presumably, if conditions are not conducive, Petraeus will try to limit any reduction in the number of U.S. troops and their role to a minimum.

This approach is hugely expensive, however, and is highly unlikely to succeed. The Afghan government shows little sign of being prepared to deliver either clean administration or effective security at the local level. While a small number of Taliban might choose to “reintegrate”—i.e., opt out of the fight—the vast majority will not. And why should they? The Taliban are resilient and enjoy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, whose government tends to view the militants as an instrument for influencing Afghanistan’s future (something Pakistan cares a great deal about, given its fear of Indian designs there). ...

The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better.

Haass outlines the advantages and disadvantages of a number of alternative approaches, including one he calls a de facto partition of Afghanistan, which would allow Taliban control of the Pashtun-dominated southern part of the country as long as it keeps Al Qaeda out. But none of the options would eliminate a strong U.S. military presence, and Haass makes no case for nation-building there, something he advised Bush to avoid except marginally, although his scenarios do call for continuing development aid at some unspecified level. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Afghanistan today to talk about development aid and the "civilian surge" that is part of the administration's counterinsurgency policy.

A recent Washington Post poll shows that the percentage of Americans who still think the war is worth fighting has dropped to 43 percent from 52 percent last December when President Obama announced the second of two surges that have added 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan since he came to office. So far, this year, 243 of those troops, plus 135 NATO troops, have been killed in stepped-up fighting.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Mon Jul 19, 2010 at 05:00 PM PDT.

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