On a recent trip to southern Afghanistan, I befriended a jovial security guard while waiting for an interview with Kandahar's provincial governor. The guard invited me to visit an "important friend" whom he thought I would be pleased to meet. "My friend is a malik," he proclaimed proudly, using a title that in Afghanistan refers to a traditional community leader. I accepted the offer, and later that day we hired a driver and set off for the countryside, past the pomegranate orchards and the vineyards, into a stony, barren landscape. After about an hour we stopped in front of a well-kept compound in an anonymous mud-brick village. A servant opened the gate and led us through the garden into a large living room.
A gracious elder entered the room. He was tall and slender, and his wavy white beard and piercing eyes gave him an imposing look. We exchanged greetings and sat down on an intricately woven silk rug. The malik asked me a few questions about myself. Then he introduced his lineage, and said nonchalantly: "You know, half my family is Taliban." I nearly choked on a sip of green tea. As the malik continued to talk, I listened carefully: "Here in the south, whenever people see foreign armies taking over, they want to fight them. I don't blame those who join the Taliban. At least the Taliban are Afghans, they're Pashtun, they're kin." He paused for a moment, and added: "I'm not a Talib. But I want the occupation to end."
A new U.S. president is about to inherit the deepening crisis in Afghanistan. As the war enters its eighth year, the United States is striving to regain momentum, increasing troop levels, and stepping up military operations to subdue a resurgent Taliban movement and stabilize the floundering Afghan government. These efforts enjoy solid bipartisan support. Indeed, the general consensus in Washington is that the war in Afghanistan remains a legitimate cause that is crucial to the U.S. national interest--a "good war" well worth a reinvigorated commitment. However, President Barack Obama should rethink the conventional wisdom. While the invasion of Afghanistan made sense in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the current nation-building-cum-counterinsurgency enterprise is an unnecessary burden that the United States can and should abandon.
The current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is failing. The United States and its NATO-led allies are ensnared in an increasingly bloody war that is straining the cohesiveness of the North Atlantic alliance. Furthermore, large numbers of Afghans have grown disillusioned with the government of Hamid Karzai, and have come to view the foreign armies that support it with cynicism and downright hostility. The rationale for pursuing the war, on the other hand, is based on largely unjustified fears of what might come if the United States and its allies were to withdraw. But Afghanistan need not become another Vietnam.
Seven years after ousting the Taliban regime, the United States and its NATO allies are still struggling to hold back a mounting insurgency. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2005, conflict-related violence killed 1,500 Afghans; in 2006, at least 3,000; and in 2007, more than 8,000. The year 2008 got off to a particularly rocky start, with Kandahar experiencing the bloodiest spate of suicide bombings in Afghanistan's history. In June, the Taliban staged a daring assault on Kandahar's main prison, freeing over 1,000 prisoners and embarrassing the Afghan national police. Less than one month later, the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul became the most devastating attack on the capital since the beginning of the insurgency. The escalating conflict also took a toll on the United States and its allies, with 2008 clearly standing out as the deadliest year (thus far) for the international coalition. General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, recently admitted: "Obviously the trends in Afghanistan have been in the wrong direction, and I think everyone is rightly concerned about them." The Atlantic Council of the United States put it more succinctly in a report chaired by General James L. Jones, the new U.S. national security advisor, who also served as NATO'S supreme military commander until 2006: "Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan."
In turn, ever more dangerous military operations are generating tensions and divisions within the North Atlantic alliance. The U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, continues to lament that some member states refuse to deploy troops to southern Afghanistan. He has said that NATO could become a two-tiered alliance, with "some allies willing to fight and die...and others who are not." Gates also chided member states fighting in the south, namely Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, saying, "I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency." In return, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged...