The war in Afghanistan seems in greater political flux today than at any time since the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched to throw out the Taliban eight years ago. With the momentum in the war clearly turning in favour of the Taliban, all of NATO seems to be discussing "exit strategies."
As of now, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark have all announced that they will be out of Afghanistan as of 2011. Italy also wants to leave. Germany will take its annual vote on the mission in the Bundestag next month; the German parliamentarians are likely to agree to stay, especially after this week's endorsement by the cabinet, but only for another year. This week, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Britain, proposed that NATO withdraw from certain areas of the country by the end of 2011 and turn them over to the Afghan National Army. President Barack Obama has not decided whether to increase U.S. troops or to impose other conditions on the Karzai government in return for an expanded troop deployment.
The people of NATO's member countries are surely more confused than ever about the mission and have lost sight of the West's vital interest: to show the Taliban and their Islamist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan that they will not be allowed to threaten a wide swath of South Asia from their mountainous redoubt along the border between the two countries.
"Exit strategy" is a compelling term that has come into universal use since the end of the Cold War primarily because "the West" is - understandably - tired of an endless series of "small" wars that have taken a steady toll of life and treasure since 1990.
When the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this month, everyone thought a new era of peace was at hand and some 200 years of Europe-centred wars that had started roughly after the French Revolution, was finally over. The American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama dubbed the period "the end of history." President George H.W. Bush spoke of the "new world order." Some "experts" even proclaimed the imminent disappearance of the nation-state.
In fact there was little break in the march of history or in the succession of wars. When the peoples of the Western democracies began to realize that their safe, secure and prosperous world still had to pay a blood tithe for their safety and security, they began to demand "exit strategies": virtual guarantees that every war would have a predictable, controlled ending. But that's not what happens in war.
THE WEST'S DIMINISHING WILL
We think too often of May, 1945, as epitomizing the end of a war - an exit strategy completed - but the Second World War was almost unique in history in that it was a total war, fought to the bitter end. Most wars have not ended that way. Even the Great War of 1914-1918 ended with a political settlement: the Treaty of Versailles.
Wars almost always end politically, or they simply peter out - no matter how long it takes - because the determination and the physical capability of one side are greater than those of the other. When the stronger side persists, an end of some kind follows.
The West has the physical resources to wear the Taliban down, but now seems to have lost the will to do so.
Canada, Britain and the United States have lost fewer soldiers killed in six years of conflict in Afghanistan than the Allies did in one morning on June 6, 1944. Some will say, "Well, that was a fight to the death against the Axis, and there is no parallel to what is happening today," and that is mostly true. But it does show that the West can absorb much greater punishment than it has up to now, if it believes its vital interests are at stake.
Today a diminishing number of Western nations believe that.
A successful exit strategy is, in fact, what Karl von Clausewitz would have called a unified and achievable political objective that once achieved, leads to the end of conflict.
At this point, there is no such unified achievable political objective in Afghanistan. American objectives range from the simple prevention of a Taliban takeover to building a "non-corrupt" government in Afghanistan, to planting the seeds of democracy there, to beating the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan as one part of a larger campaign to eventually defeat the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This last is possible only with a persistent military effort by the Pakistan's army in its own country and much greater military power in Afghanistan.