Conservative columnist and former speechwriter to George W. Bush, David Frum has replied to George Will’s call for a withdrawal. I laud Frum for, firstly, not attacking Will on the grounds that he changed his position. Everybody changes their positions on issues–if we didn’t we’d either be obtuse or intellectually deficient (stupid). Frum goes on to list various reasons that undercut the case for withdrawal.

He is encouraged by Pakistan’s shift in fighting the Taliban:

After years of disengagement or even complicity with the Taliban, Pakistani authorities have belatedly joined the fight to deny them sanctuary.

Although this may be true, it misses the fundamental point that Pakistan is concerned with fighting the PakistaniTaliban and not the Afghan groups. Pakistan has not actively pursued Mullah Omar in its midst and the Afghan-Pakistan border remains porous. Moreover, whatever Pakistan does in its own territory does not necessarily challenge the growing writ of the Afghan Taliban.

Frum next proceeds to state that “[o]ur goals in Afghanistan are properly modest,” to establish a democratic state like Tajikistan (which by the way, is autocracy-lite. Other Central Asian countries are even worse.) That’s awfully different from the previously touted goals of a democratic Afghanistan that Mr. Frum penciled in President Bush’s speeches. But I won’t blame Frum for a shift in goals–the context has evolved, and so should our goals. What he’s missing here is that Afghanistan is entirely unlike the other Central Asian states. It has never been ruled centrally, nor can it be. There are too many ethnic ‘centres of power’–to quip Paul Kennedy–for there to exist a centralized administration. Moreover, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s high literacy rates can largely be accounted for by the fact that they were occupied by the Soviet Union for decades. Afghanistan, however, as the Soviets learned, could not be tamed.

The better strategy is to abandon imposing (with elaborate and expensive yet ineffective nation-building) and to start working with the existing power structure to achieve the central goal of keeping Al Qaeda out.