The alarming pace of events in Afghanistan is forcing United States and Nato strategists to adjust their strategy and timetable to end the war. But they cannot acknowledge the flaw at the heart of their efforts.
A number of recent columns in this series has reflected on the interplay of military and political dynamics in the "greater middle east", from Iran to Afghanistan, to Syria. Several have examined the possibility that a process of crisis escalation involving "accidents, incidents or mavericks" - a combination summarised in the acronym "AIM" - would trigger war over Iran (see "America, Israel, Iran: mediation vs war", 16 February 2012).
A subsequent column assessing the conflict in Afghanistan concluded that United States policy there is unlikely to change much even if Mitt Romney defeats Barack Obama in the presidential election in November 2012 (see "Afghanistan: the endgame drama", 1 March 2012). But in Afghanistan as in Iran, the AIM effect may now be having an impact in a way that has implications for the future of western military power.
A political retreat
The argument for continuity in Afghanistan draws on evidence that President Obama has decided on a timetable for withdrawal of American troops there, hoping both that Afghan government forces can assume responsibility for security and that any Taliban role in a post-withdrawal government would be very limited. Romney's election rhetoric (and that of any plausible Republican rival) might scorn Obama's approach as "defeatism" or worse, but the next US president would follow a similar course - precisely because the western predicament in Afghanistan is now becoming unsustainable.
The response to such acts by American soldiers as urinating on dead Afghans and burning copies of the Qur'an (both of which led to widespread fury and retaliatory attacks on American targets) strengthen the case that strategic reality in Afghanistan is becoming inexorable.
The massacre of sixteen Afghan civilians on 11 March by (it seems) a lone American soldier confirms in bleak fashion that the "AIM" concept can shed light on the Afghan endgame as much as it does the twisting Iranian crisis. This might yet be attributed to a "maverick", but it is certainly also an "incident" in the tripartite schema - and its sheer horror, especially the killing of children, makes it one of special extremity that also betrays a deep problem within the US military.
But in combination with the earlier outrages, the massacre may come to acquire importance as a rare example of an AIM element that will - by clarifying options on both sides - have the effect of ratcheting a conflict down rather than up. Its impact is already significant. In Afghanistan it has intensified antagonism to the foreign military presence, as evidenced on 15 March both in the Taliban's statement that it is suspending preliminary talks with the US and in the demand of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, that American forces retreat to their bases from villages and patrols.
In the US it has reinforced political pressure in favour of a speedy withdrawal. The multiple signs include the weak response to John McCain's call for a reassertion of a "victory over the Taliban" approach. It is very doubtful that either Romney or Rick Santorum will pursue this line to excess in the next months' campaigning.
More broadly, the impact of the desecrations that have fueled so much Afghan anger is less to alter existing US policy choices than to consolidate those already taken by both George W Bush and Barack Obama.
A plan for failure
Indeed, the context of the last four years is relevant. George W Bush was planning for a military "surge" in Afghanistan in 2008, and John McCain would have implemented the same policy had he defeated Barack Obama - that is, injecting at least 30,000 troops with the intention of destroying the Taliban insurgency.
After many months of review, Obama in 2010 too chose the surge option - but with the singular aim of ending an unwinnable war on tolerable terms, from a position of strength. Two years on, there is little evidence of this working; Taliban groups retain their control of swathes of the country and influence many more, all the while largely avoiding open combat that would expose them to attack.
Now, sources in Washington and London reveal that a clear line of approach with a set timetable is being planned. The latter is not immutable; another mass-casualty attack or unexpected developments in Pakistan could alter it. But the heart of the new, three-pronged strategy is set:
* Withdraw all the "surge" forces by the end of 2012, but keep the remaining 60,000-plus American troops in Afghanistan until the latter part of 2013 - when the withdrawal accelerates
* Exit almost all forces by the end of 2014 - though leaving special-force units, drones and some other troops to control any resurgence of transnational paramilitarism.
This approach entails maintaining combat operations through the next two summers, 2012 and 2013 (periods euphemistically known as "fighting seasons" when they might more appropriately be called "dying seasons"). It is being championed within Nato on the grounds that efforts during these two seasons will sufficiently weaken the Taliban to give the ANA some chance of maintaining security. In consequence, the degree of negotiated compromise with the Taliban will recede in importance.
This is a great comedown from the complete victory envisaged in late 2001, or even the successes confidently expected when Nato forces moved into Afghanistan in very large numbers in 2006. Yet it is easy to see why from a Nato military perspective, the strategy is regarded as the best practical way forward.
But it has a very deep flaw at its centre. The notion that two more "dying seasons" will greatly degrade the Taliban and other armed opposition groups is countered by all the experience of recent years, when the dominant pattern sees the Taliban and other groups melt away undefeated to bide their time when Nato forces move in to "take over" an area. Many of the more thoughtful military planners are aware that this is the reality, though it cannot be admitted in polite circles.
The signs are that the 2012-14 period in Afghanistan will be messy, and potentially very difficult for the country. There is now a bottom line, however. This almost certainly will end up being a fourteen-year war that leaves in its wake huge loss of life and very many thousands of injuries, will have consumed trillions of dollars of resources, all to reach an outcome that for Nato is utterly different to expectations.
That will not be acknowledged because to do so would undermine the validity of the whole alliance; and because it will not be acknowledged, many of the crucial lessons will be not be learned. That in turn makes it more than likely that Nato will stumble on through further crises, all the while avoiding the core question of whether it should even continue to exist.