Despite their differences over how to pursue the US war in Iraq, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both want to send more American troops to Afghanistan. Both are wrong. History cries out to them, but they are not listening.
Both candidates would do well to gaze for a moment on a painting by the British artist Elizabeth Butler called "Remnants of an Army." It depicts the lone survivor of a 15,000-strong British column that sought to march through 150 kilometers of hostile Afghan territory in 1842. His gaunt, defeated figure is a timeless reminder of what happens to foreign armies that try to subdue Afghanistan.
The McCain-Obama approach to Afghanistan, like much of US policy toward the Middle East and Central Asia, is based on emotion rather than realism. Emotion leads many Americans to want to punish perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They see war against the Taliban as a way to do it. Suggesting that victory over the Taliban is impossible, and that the United States can only hope for peace in Afghanistan through compromise with Taliban leaders, has been taken as near-treason.
This knee-jerk response ignores the pattern of fluid loyalties that has been part of Afghan tribal life for centuries. Alliances shift as interests change. Warlords who support the Taliban are not necessarily enemies of the United States. If they are today, they need not be tomorrow.
In recent weeks, this elemental truth has begun to reshape debate over Western policy toward Afghanistan. Warlords on both sides met quietly in Saudi Arabia. The Afghan defense minister called for a "political settlement with the Taliban." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates would not go that far, but said he might ultimately be open to "reconciliation as part of the political outcome."
Gates, however, struck a delusionary note of "can-do" cheeriness by repeating the McCain-Obama mantra: More US troops can pacify Afghanistan. Speaking days after a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the United States was caught in a "downward spiral" there, Gates asserted that there is "no reason to be defeatist or underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run."
In fact, long-run success in Afghanistan - defined as an acceptable level of violence and assurance that Afghan territory will not be used for attacks against other countries - will only be possible with fewer foreign troops on the ground, not more.
A relentless series of US attacks in Afghanistan has produced "collateral damage" in the form of hundreds of civilian deaths, which alienate the very Afghans the West needs. As long as the campaign continues, recruits will pour into Taliban ranks. It is no accident that the Taliban has mushroomed since the current bombing campaign began. It allows the Taliban to claim the mantle of resistance to a foreign occupier. In Afghanistan, there is none more sacred.
The US war in Afghanistan also serves as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. It is attracting a new stream of foreign fighters into the region. A few years ago, these jihadists went to Iraq to fight the Great Satan. Now they see the United States escalating its war in Afghanistan and neighboring regions of Pakistan, and are flocking there instead.
Even if the United States de-escalates its war in Afghanistan, the country will not be stable as long as the poppy trade provides huge sums of money for violent militants. Eradicating poppies is like eradicating the Taliban: a great idea but not achievable. Instead of waging endless spray-and-burn campaigns that alienate ordinary Afghans, the United States should allow planting to proceed unmolested, and then buy the entire crop. Some could be turned into morphine for medical use, and the rest destroyed. The Afghan poppy crop is worth an estimated $4 billion per year. That sum would be better spent putting cash into the pockets of Afghan peasants than firing missiles into their villages.
Deploying more US troops in Afghanistan will intensify this highly dangerous conflict, not calm it. Compromise with Al Qaeda would be both unimaginable and morally repugnant, but the Taliban is a different force. Skillful negotiation among clan leaders, based on a genuine willingness to compromise, holds the best hope for Afghanistan. It is an approach based on reality, not emotion.