Things Don't Get Much More Confusing Than Afghanistan

One day after the New York Times quoted an expert saying the Taliban's leader has "staged one of the most remarkable military comebacks in modern history," Fareed Zakaria is in today's Washington Post arguing that America's Afghanistan "mission has been largely successful for the past eight years." Confused?

Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, summarized his positive assessment like this:

"At the heart of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for a major surge in troops is the assumption that we are failing in Afghanistan. But are we really? ... Al-Qaeda is dispersed, on the run and unable to direct attacks of the kind it planned and executed routinely in the 1990s."

Zakaria acknowledged "the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated considerably" but takes solace that all "the major population centers remain in the hands of the Kabul government." He went on to ask, "Is it worth the effort to gain control of all 35,000 Afghan villages scattered throughout the country?"

It's a reasonable question, but one that should be put in context.

Rory Stewart, the man who walked across Afghanistan and lived to write about it, provided that context during a September appearance on Bill Moyers Journal: "this is a country where 80 to 90 percent of the population live in villages."

Stewart's interview runs more than 20 minutes and is well worth watching. Without ever actually contradicting himself, Stewart argues: 1) that it would be a "political catastrophe" for President Obama to reject McChrystal's request for more troops; 2) that McChrystal's plan calls for vastly more troops than he's asking for; and 3) that the U.S. should have even fewer troops in Afghanistan than it does now.

Stewart fears a "boom and bust" cycle with troops pouring in until political support evaporates and forces a major drawdown. He wants Americans and their leaders to understand the limits of what they can expect from even a sustained deployment:

"Unless you get that, you don't get why you can't build that amazing thing that you're trying to build. And people keep coming back and saying, 'Oh, all you're saying is we need to be realistic in our expectations.' And my response is, 'Yeah, but you don't quite get how realistic I mean. I don't just mean drop it from Jeffersonian democracy to vaguely stable state. I mean, even that vaguely stable state is a pretty distant dream.' ... (You) can invest 20-30 years in Afghanistan. And if you were lucky, you would make it look a bit like Pakistan."

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