Despite the near-complete absence of the war in Afghanistan as an election issue, President Obama's strategy of increasing American troops in the country is still the most consequential decision of his presidency.
We disagreed with the surge for several reasons, but especially because the strategy depends on a reliable partner to uphold the "hold" part of the "clear and hold" counterinsurgency campaign. Our forces have lived up to their end of the "clear" bargain. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, conversely, has lived down to already low expectations.
Three developments in three weeks are just the most recent examples.
Karzai publicly criticized America -- again -- and angrily told NATO Commander Gen. David H. Petraeus he didn't need the West's help. The issue that sparked Karzai's latest outburst was the use of private security forces to protect civilian development projects that are crucial in winning Afghan citizen support for the feeble government.
But the real reason for his rage was most likely the leak -- later confirmed by Karzai -- that he routinely received bags of cash from the anti-American government in Iran. The millions are for "special expenses and helping people," Karzai told the New York Times.
The practice is indicative of the culture of corruption that's proved so corrosive to efforts to convince everyday Afghans to side with the government instead of the Taliban. "The majority of who we try to bring over to the government's side are disenchanted, and the corruption brings more disenchantment," said Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Marine Corps University.
Karzai's corruption is one of the reasons that the Taliban, soundly defeated nearly nine years ago, has made a remarkable political, diplomatic and military comeback -- so much so that Karzai's government is now reportedly in the early stages of peace talks with his once-defeated enemy.
Karzai's desire to replace reliable private security with the unreliable Afghan security services, along with the Iranian involvement and Taliban peace talks, suggests that he's planning for a post-American era. Accordingly, we should be too, including sticking to Obama's announced timetable to begin to draw down troops sometime next year.
Critics contend that Obama's troop timeline sends the wrong signal to those loyal to the Taliban or the government. Facts on the ground dispute this analysis, however.
America's acknowledgment that it will not stay in Afghanistan forever didn't send Karzai into the arms of Iran. He's been working both sides of the U.S.-Iran divide for years. The acknowledgment may be new, but it wasn't news: Karzai had already told President George W. Bush about the cash payments.
And while it's true that Iran is in conflict with most of the world over its sponsorship of terrorism and its nascent nuclear weapons program, it has a more nuanced history -- a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" role, according to Tarzi -- of actually occasionally helping the West in the post-Taliban era, including aiding Karzai's ascension to president.
As for the peace talks, they were not prompted by Karzai's being discouraged by an eventual American drawdown, but instead are reflective of what nearly every observer concludes from the conflict: There is no military solution.
"Military people themselves would say it would be easier and better to sideline the Taliban than to hunt them down and kill them," said Dr. Lisa Schirch, executive director of the 3D Security Initiative and a professor of peace-building at Eastern Mennonite University, who was in Minneapolis this month for the Vaclav Havel Civil Society Symposium. "Because when you try to hunt them down and kill them, you actually create more Taliban supporters."
To be sure, the West's military success, however limited, has impressed upon the Taliban that they can't win militarily. So both sides have an incentive to join peace talks.
But if the Taliban can't win militarily, it can compete for the same hearts and minds that give it leverage. It does so by brute force, but also with the appearance of being a less corrupt alternative to Karzai's central government.
This is why Obama should have chosen a diplomatic and development surge instead of a military one. Indeed, the presence of more troops may be inflaming the situation in many cases as villagers find common cause with the Taliban to oust what are considered occupying forces.
A phased, orderly drawdown -- as is being done in Iraq -- is not an abandonment of Afghanistan. Thousands of troops are likely to remain for years, and billions of development dollars have been committed. But setting, and keeping, a timeline signals that American involvement is not open-ended, and that Karzai should fully focus on readying an army and police to take over what should be an Afghan job.
If it also means that Afghans from every societal sector realize that another generation of killing won't solve what peace negotiations will, then Obama's drawdown announcement will have played an even more constructive role.