In March 1898, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill published his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. In it, he advanced the best advice yet given on how an outside imperial power should deal with a country like Afghanistan. The young subaltern was, of course, referring to how Britain should approach the population of the Pashtun frontier beyond the Indian subcontinent, but he might just as well have been referring to how the early 21st century United States should do so. For much as its people and elites abjure the term, America is in an imperial-like position in much of the world.
Churchill intimated three courses of action. The first course, that of "bad and nervous sailors," essentially meant to withdraw entirely and henceforth have nothing whatsoever to do with the region. The second course, that of "'Full steam ahead,'" was to initiate a large military operation until the people of the frontier "are as safe and civilized as Hyde Park." Whereas the first course is irresponsible, the second is unfeasible, given the expenditure of resources required. Then there is the third course: "a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions." Churchill admitted that this third course is "undignified," nevertheless, he saw no alternative for a great power, recognizing that any grand strategy must marry goals with available resources. Thus, was a 23-year-old far wiser than many an elderly policymaker.
Churchill's third course does not fit exactly the proper direction of the United States in Afghanistan (geographical shorthand for Churchill's tribes of the frontier). But it is a starting point. The United States cannot withdraw utterly and thus have nothing whatsoever to do with the region -- an approach the United States adopted following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal with disastrous results. Indeed, the United States will have a continuing interest in preventing transnational terrorists from planning 9/11-style attacks from Afghan soil. And it has interests in the political direction of adjacent regions like Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran. Nor can the United States simply keep large numbers of forces in Afghanistan indefinitely until the political situation there is set to rights. There is simply no public support for such a policy, not to mention the financial cost. For that reason, the current attempt at negotiations with the Taliban is arguably less negotiations over the future of Afghanistan than merely an attempt to arrange a decent interval: so that the government of Hamid Karzai does not begin to crumble the moment the last American ground troops depart.
The United States will surely withdraw from Afghanistan, and yet it will be forced to remain behind at a far less visible level: with the ability to launch unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and special operations forces periodically, both made possible perhaps by CIA intermediaries with the frontier tribes, and more likely with Pakistani intelligence operatives who themselves have direct contact with the tribes. Such details are obviously open to serious debate, but the outline is apparent. The Obama administration will remove Afghanistan as a U.S. military dependency from the level of media discourse, even as it maintains at least a toehold there. Certainly, this is not precisely what Churchill had in mind, but it is a rough 21st century variation; even as Churchill's goal was military advance, while America's is retreat. The bottom line: What America must henceforth do in Afghanistan best approximates Churchill's third option.
Just as there are three courses of action for a country like Afghanistan, as expounded by Churchill, there are three directions in which a post-American Afghanistan might go. The first course is that Karzai -- or rather an elected, moderate successor -- will remain in power just as in the past, with an Afghan government supported by the international community even gradually gaining in legitimacy. This is possible but unlikely. The Afghan government, despite more than a decade in power, is thoroughly corrupt, suffers questionable legitimacy in large swaths of the countryside and is weakly institutionalized. Without American troops to properly support it, its prospects must be dimmer than beforehand. The second course is that the Taliban will relatively quickly overrun much of the country, as they did in the mid-1990s, following the mujahideen-inflicted anarchy: anarchy that, in turn, followed the Soviet withdrawal. This, too, is quite possible. With the Americans more or less gone, and the Kabul government's legitimacy highly problematic, the Taliban, though a different, weaker force than they were in the 1990s, might simply be the last man standing.