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Obama speech: kicking the can down the road in Afghanistan

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Obama's policies would seem an unsatisfying compromise among contending arguments. Thirty thousand more troops will not turn the tide; arguably they present more American targets for attack. They will heighten traditional xenophobia against foreigners traipsing through Pashtun villages and homes. It is a fool's errand to persuade the locals in Pashtun territory that the Taliban are the enemy and the US is their friend.

Whatever mixed feelings Pashtuns have toward the Taliban, they know the Taliban remain the single most important element of Pashtun political life; the Taliban will be among them long after Washington tires of this mission.

The strategy of the Bush era envisioned Afghanistan as a vital imperial outpost in a post-Soviet dream world where hundreds of overseas US bases would cement US global hegemony, keeping Russia and China in check and the US on top. That world vision is gone – except to a few Washington diehards who haven't grasped the new emerging global architectures of power, economics, prestige, and influence.

The Taliban will inevitably figure significantly in the governance of almost any future Afghanistan, like it or not. Future Taliban leaders, once rid of foreign occupation, will have little incentive to support global jihadi schemes – they never really have by choice. The Taliban inherited bin Laden as a poison pill from the past when they came to power in 1996 and have learned a bitter lesson about what it means to lend state support to a prominent terrorist group.

The Taliban with a voice in power will have every incentive to welcome foreign money and expertise into the country, including the Pashtun regions – as long as it is not part of a Western strategic package. An austere Islamic regime is not the ideal outcome for Afghanistan, but it is by far the most realistic. To reverse ground realities and achieve a markedly different outcome is not in the cards and will pose the same dilemma to Obama next year.

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