My latest from TIME.com:
President Obama’s plain-speaking Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, on Nov. 12 summed up the Administration’s Afghan dilemma in a single question: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?” The fact that there’s no good answer explains the Administration’s hesitation in committing more troops to the fight. Indeed, the objectives cited by Gates may function at cross-purposes.
Signaling America’s resolve to prevail is essential, as Gates notes, because as long as Afghans and others in the region believe the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan is finite, they’ll hedge their bets. And hedged bets right now work in the Taliban’s favor because, as General Stanley McChrystal has warned, it is the insurgents who have the momentum.
The Taliban knows that time is the indispensable ally of the indigenous insurgent facing a foreign army… Given the limits of U.S. control on the ground and the expectation that, sooner or later, like the Russians, the Americans will leave, many ordinary Afghans see little incentive to risk their lives in supporting the U.S. mission.
The calculations of ordinary Afghans could change, of course, if they believed the U.S. was there to stay and had the will and capability to prevail. But, as Gates also notes, the U.S. military is not in Afghanistan to stay, and Obama is under growing domestic political pressure to find an exit strategy from a costly war whose importance to U.S. national security has grown murky.
The simple answer to the Administration’s dilemma, in the minds of many in Washington, is to train and equip Afghans to do the job themselves. Obama reportedly rejected all four options offered by his national-security staff on Nov. 11 … because they failed to make clear how and when responsibility for the war would be transferred to Afghan forces. By doing so, Obama may have pointed to the elephant in the room. On present indications, the Afghan forces are unlikely anytime in the near future to be ready and willing to take over the fight against the Taliban.