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Dov Zakheim, who served as the US Defense Department’s civilian coordinator in post-war Afghanistan from 2002-2004, has a new piece in the National Interest that’s worth reading. He argues that the US should abandon the goal of a Western-style democracy and begin bribing Afghan warlords and expanding aid for the Afghan people.

An exit strategy for Afghanistan should revolve around two objectives: establishing a power-sharing equilibrium between the various ethnic/tribal groups and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven. The latter point, as earlier discussed, is achievable through constant intelligence cooperation with the Afghan government and its neighbours–and, of course, drone and cruise missile technology. This, however, requires that there be a somewhat friendly Afghan government in Kabul, friendly warlords and tribal leaders in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, and cooperation from Pakistan, India, Iran, Tajikistan, Iran and Russia.

The goal of a cooperative Afghanistan is commensurate with the creation of a stable power-sharing regime in the country.  With each of the above mentioned actors–who, in turn, back local groups in Afghan–pursuing often conflicting objectives, the United States’ exit strategy must consist of carefully balancing their interests against one another. It will require shifting considerable diplomatic focus to the region at large, which, the appointment of Ambassador Holbrooke, accomplishes. It will require addressing Pakistan’s fear of a pro-India Afghanistan, allowing Russia adequate influence in the country and allaying the concerns of various minority groups. It will also mean abandoning the idea of a centralized Afghanistan and instead embracing the idea of decentralized, warlord-controlled Afghanistan. For more on my reasons for pessimism I suggest reading Rory Stewart’s essay in the London Review of Books and this essay by an ex-CIA officer .

A healthy debate has been brewing between Prof. Walt and the ubiquitous Peter Bergen (the guy who’s always talking about how he interviewed Bin Laden in 1997 and, you know, understands just exactly what goes inside the mind of terrorists–that guy). Walt argues that the United States and NATO should leave Afghanistan because accomplishing the oft-cited goals of establishing a stable democracy in the country are neither achievable nor necessary. Bergen, however, thinks that a long term presence is necessary to prevent Al Qaeda from re-organizing in the country under another Taliban government. He argues that an unstable Afghanistan would provide a haven for Al Qaeda, much like it did before 2001.

Although Bergen is right that it is possible that Al Qaeda could, it is not likely. Firstly, there are plenty of other unstable states–Somalia, Yemen, and to some extent Pakistan–where Al Qaeda can find another home. Moreover, does Al Qaeda really need a home base anymore? With the explosion of look-alike and franchise Al Qaeda groups (such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda of the Maghreb), the group no longer relies on a centralized structure. Sure, the group could use Afghanistan as a training base. But attacking training bases and keeping the organization on its toes does not require foot soldiers. Coordinating cruise missile strikes with the Pakistanis and a hopefully friendly Afghan government could work effectively, if not more effectively.

Bergen further assumes that the US occupation can accomplish some semblance of stability and democratic government. That’s simply not possible–unless a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan is implemented along with a 20-30 year military commitment. Why? The current Afghan army, primarily controlled and staffed by Tajiks, cannot keep the peace in the raucous Pushtun half of the country. The Pushtuns, who are at least 42% of the populace, are disengaged from the political process in Kabul. Warlordism is flourishing and the Taliban, though despised, represent the lesser evil when compared to Tajiks and foreign troops. Even if the US could remain in Afghanistan for an extended period, nothing guarantees that this fiercely proud and xenophobic country will accept such an occupation.

The best option is leaving. It would shift the onus of nation-building to the Afghans themselves. The inevitable consequence would be a power vacuum, which might encourage the Pashtun tribes to begin engaging in the political process. Afghan culture has an establish custom of inter-tribal conflict resolution, developed over centuries of dealing with tribal competition (See: Pushtunwali). The exit strategy should revolve around beginning such a national reconciliation. I’ll follow this post with a more detailed explanation of what a reconciliation would ideally look like.

It seems the Obama administration is pursuing a new strategy with Pakistan. In recent weeks, along with announcements for significant non-military aid for Pakistan, it has sent extended the proverbial hand to its opponents in Pakistan. This new approach, which was articulated by both President Obama and Secretary Clinton during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, repudiates the Bush administration’s singular dependence on General Musharraf to advance American interests. It recognizes that investing in the Pakistani people and the country’s civilian institutions is a far better long-term strategy for defeating extremism and terrorism. By finally building relations with Pakistani society, the United States can begin undermining the deep mistrust that makes Pakistanis reluctant to support the war against the Taliban.

Another component of the Obama administration’s new approach towards Pakistan–and one that has received little media coverage–is the transferring of unmanned drone technology to the Pakistani Air Force. This in effect shifts greater resources to the Pakistani establishment to fight the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan itself, instead of relying on the CIA to combat these elements. The battle against the the Pakistani Taliban has been criticized as essentially a foreign enterprise, one that routinely violated Pakistani sovereignty and killed innocent Pakistani civilians. If combating the Pakistani Taliban is sold as primarily an indigenous effort, with indigenous resources, then it is more likely to receive broad support. Already, in light of the Tehrik-e-Taliban’s advance close to Islamabad and the unveiling of the horrors committed by the group, Pakistani opinion is turning against the Pakistani Taliban.

Of course, all this contributes little to NATO’s battle against the Afghan Taliban, which has links to the Pakistani faction but is viewed in an entirely different strategic light. Accusations that Pakistan harbours Mullah Omar persist. Many in the Pakistani establishment, especially the intelligence agency (ISI), perceive the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against the growing power of the pro-Indian Afghan politicians (Hamid Karzai and his rival Abdullah Abdullah included).