What does the new British government make of its war in Afghanistan? While we await a clear statement, events in the blighted country hurtle with their own menacing momentum towards the endgame. Last week in Washington Barack Obama tried to appease his increasingly intransigent Afghan ally, Hamid Karzai, who had recently threatened to join the Taliban. Laden with reassurances and promises of some more cash, the Afghan president had barely arrived back in Kabul when the Taliban attacked a NATO convoy in the city. Within 24 hours of the suicide attack, which pushed the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan to 1,000, the Taliban assaulted the American base at Bagram. They were also reportedly in control of Marja in Helmand province, three months after being driven out by NATO and Afghan soldiers in a much-touted military offensive.
Another ambitious military campaign looms this summer, this time in Kandahar; and plenty of embedded journalists will be at hand to report on thrilling battles with, and early successes against, a treacherous enemy. But the periodic trumpets of war in Afghanistan increasingly fail to drown out the dangerously deepening confusion at the heart of western strategy, especially as every few months a new enemy announces itself on an arc now expanding from Waziristan to Connecticut.
A car bomb in Times Square wasn't what Obama may have been expecting when, fulfilling his presidential campaign promise, he expanded the war on terror into north-west Pakistan. Last year more soldiers and civilians died in this almost unnoticed new theater of war than in Iraq and Afghanistan put together. It was also last year that the American-backed Pakistani assaults on the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas turned an astounding 3 million people into refugees.
Many of them have since gone home, but hundreds of thousands are still homeless; a wave of retaliatory suicide-bombings across Pakistan, which has killed hundreds, demonstrated the depth of vengeful rage unleashed by the military operation. However, this extraordinarily volatile situation will be briefly covered in the western media only when there is another terrorist attack on the west - which many columnists will then quickly blame on the genetic jihadi propensity for motiveless mayhem.
Those of us who were alarmed by Obama's bellicose rhetoric during the presidential campaign have no reason to be comforted by the revelations in The Promise, a new book on his first year in office by the Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter. According to Alter, an old acquaintance of Obama, the winner of the 2008 election went "into office knowing little about the situation on the ground", "received advice from Bush holdovers that he wasn't prepared to resist", and consequently "stumbled into a large commitment without fully realizing what he was getting into". But late recognition of the previous administration's arrogant follies and ineptitude, and the policy review announced by Obama last year, seem merely to have created fresh scope for self-delusion.
Obama has declared that American forces will start withdrawing from Afghanistan in July next year, by which time they will have been fighting there for longer than they did in Vietnam. It will be politically expedient for him to wind down the war and bring a majority of soldiers home before the next presidential election in 2012.
The timetable depends entirely on success in defeating or bribing the Taliban into passivity, which also makes it absurdly impractical. For the Taliban won't be subjugated - not even with the much bigger military commitment that the US cannot presently afford. Nor will they be inclined to negotiate with an adversary that has all but lost - not at least while they are still being hunted down by NATO, which makes Karzai's grand multimillion-dollar strategy for reconciliation with the Taliban appear yet another self-enrichment scheme.
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By appearing to do something rather than nothing, the CIA and the Pentagon, which tried to browbeat Obama into a much larger commitment of troops than they eventually secured, maintain the initiative in Afghanistan. Though a bit more concerned about civilian fatalities than before, they still act with relative impunity: responding last week to allegations that a US-trained militia murdered a police chief in Kandahar, an Afghan prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for an American special forces commander. The Pentagon's attempt at non-military counterinsurgency may never rise above such risible schemes as biometric ID cards for all Afghans (described by Steve Coll in an excellent article in the New Yorker this week); it will achieve even less by holding countless tribal shuras with ancient-looking bushy-bearded elders, who can be drummed up by wily and entrepreneurial Afghans at short notice (particularly when US dollars are to be handed out).
Meanwhile, as the civilian casualty rate declines in Afghanistan, it shoots up in north-west Pakistan. According to one recent estimate by Pakistani officials, the CIA's predator drone strikes killed 700 civilians, the majority women and children, during Obama's first year in office. A more conservative estimate last year by the New America Foundation puts civilian casualties at about 30% of the total fatalities in these strikes. Obama has ramped up the killing spree in recent weeks, firing 18 missiles on 10 May alone. And the normalization of these almost everyday massacres proceeds apace.
Speaking early this month at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, Obama mock-threatened the boyband idolized by his daughters with these words: "Boys ... don't get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming." The giggles, if any, had faded by later that evening as news of an attempted assault on New York's Times Square began to filter in.
The bemused, quasi-sociological speculation about Faisal Shahzad's upper-class background, American citizenship and MBA degree is beside the point. It's clear that a natural wannabe American was not only radicalized by the grisly spectacle, as Shahzad confessed to his interrogators, of "innocent people being hit by drones from above"; he also received help from those determined to strike back at the remote controllers of impersonal slaughter - what the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, writing in the trenches of the first world war, called "the fast-approaching volleys of a blind death from which there is no appeal".
This blowback, and the mushrooming worldwide of many unlikely and reluctant fundamentalists, was widely predicted, even by such Iraq-hardened counterinsurgency experts as David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum. "Every one of these dead noncombatants," Kilcullen and Exum wrote in the New York Times last year, "represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement."
And the ranks of the homicidally enraged will swell as long as the CIA and the Pentagon seek to achieve victory through an exalted capacity for murder and destruction. For as the American writer James Baldwin, no counter-insurgency expert, wrote: "It is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him but to the victims. They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this and as inexorably as the roll call - the honor roll - of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable; they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain. When this point is reached, however long the battle may go on, the victor can never be the victor; on the contrary, all his energies, his life, are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win."
This desert of bewilderment is where the US and its allies find themselves today, almost a decade into their longest war in modern history; the new government faces no more urgent - and daunting - task than leading Britain out of it.