Nearly nine years into the Afghan war, the United States has begun scaling back its ambitions, searching for an acceptable way out that avoids defeat.
Talk of routing the Taliban has been replaced by efforts to woo insurgents to lay down their arms, as pressure builds to find a formula that will open the door to an eventual exit, even as more American troops pour in to the south.
“What can the United States accept?,” asked an essay on the war in the journal Foreign Affairs, a question that now preoccupies US policy makers.
“The perfect is probably not achievable in Afghanistan — but the acceptable can still be salvaged,” the authors wrote.
America’s most revered military officer, General David Petraeus, is poised to take command of the NATO-led force at a time of high anxiety in President Barack Obama’s White House over the course of the war.
The administration has placed its faith in a strategy that attempts to secure key towns and cities, including in the Taliban’s southern bastions, while training up security forces to gradually take over.
But the approach, inspired by the Iraq war, has made only halting progress, which US officials blame mostly on the Afghan government’s shortcomings and corruption-plagued reputation.
In the stifling summer heat in Afghanistan, US officers cannot hide their frustration with an amateur police force and an unreliable government.
The NATO-led force that will soon reach about 150,000 faces an elusive enemy that relies on lethal homemade bombs buried in the dirt and intimidation of local Afghans daring to side with Kabul.
Instead of trying to forge a robust democracy, the US war strategy now focuses on preventing Al-Qaeda and its allies from taking power in Afghanistan or setting up sanctuaries on its territory.
The approach amounts to “Afghan good enough” instead of an overly-idealistic “Afghan impossible,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In Washington and NATO capitals, there is now “more willingness” to reach an accommodation with middle and lower level members of the Taliban, as well as trying to peel away some senior figures if possible, he said.
“Those are now options people are more willing to accept,” Cordesman told AFP.
Some insurgents have taken oaths and turned in their assault rifles in return for jobs and amnesty, but the outcome of a more elaborate reconciliation plan by Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains uncertain.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged the Taliban are part of the “political fabric” of Afghanistan and that a political settlement will be needed to eventually end the conflict.
The Americans are betting that a combination of military pressure, aid and political olive branches will force the insurgents to the negotiating table for a peace deal.
But even a more modest plan will take years to succeed, Cordesman and other analysts said, and there are still no guarantees in the “graveyard of empires.”
The authors of the Foreign Affairs article argue the United States needs to jettison the idea of a strong central government in Afghanistan, and instead settle for a messier, decentralized power-sharing model more in keeping with the country’s traditions.
Even as policy experts debate the best way forward, lawmakers in Congress are asking if the conflict’s human and financial cost can be justified much longer. Members of Obama’s party are anxious to launch a drawdown of troops by mid-2011, as the president has pledged.
With the new strategy in place less than a year, and a US troop buildup still under way, Gates and the newly nominated commander, Petraeus, have appealed for patience.
But public patience on both sides of the Atlantic is wearing thin with a war that has dragged on since 2001.
Driving through the Taliban’s birthplace in Kandahar city this month, two soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division wondered whether American forces have overstayed their welcome.
“We get a lot of dirty looks, I get the feeling they don’t like us very much around here,” one said.
His comrade agreed, imagining a conversation with the Afghans. “You don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here. OK, I am going home, sounds like a f(expletive) good deal for both of us.”