Brian Beutler brings us this fascinating dialogue about Afghanistan between Fareed Zakaria and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The part of the transcript that I was most interested in went like this:
ZAKARIA: But it sounds like there is very little support in Canada for an extension of Canada’s mission, which expires in 2012, am I right?
HARPER: Yes. It expires at the end of 2011. The issue in Canada, Fareed, I don’t think is whether we stay or whether we go. The issue that Canadians ask is, are we being successful? And—
ZAKARIA: —what’s your answer to that right now?
HARPER: Right now, we have made gains. Those gains are not irreversible, so the success has been modest.
ZAKARIA: So then, why leave?
HARPER: We’re not going to win this war just be staying. We’re not going to — in fact, my own judgment, Fareed, is, quite frankly, we are not ever going to defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had — my reading of Afghanistan history, it’s probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.
I think this illustrates a few points. One is that there’s no more patience among our allies for an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan than there is among the Afghan people. The moral of the story is that rather than setting lofty war aims and then deciding it’ll take decades to achieve them, we need to envision a presence that ends in the not-too-distant-future and then frame some war aims that are plausibly achievable on that schedule.
Harper’s view that we’re never going to defeat the insurgency reflects, in some ways, nothing more than the Obama administration’s repeated assertions that there’s no purely military solution in Afghanistan. In a larger sense, though, Harper is pointing to the endemic nature of political instability in Afghanistan and raising doubts—doubts that I think should be taken seriously—about the feasibility of establishing a Kabul-based central government that’s capable of exercising effective control over 100 percent of the country. It’s worth noting that the absence of such a government is potentially quite compatible with Western security interests. In a scenario where instability and factional violence continues to be endemic, the key issue for us is that all substantial factions must feel that there is more to be lost from allying with international terrorists (in terms of provoking western ire and western support for rival factions) than there is to be gained from such an alliance.