The longest war

The Obama administration is set to release its long-awaited December strategic review of the war in Afghanistan Thursday, and it's a safe bet there'll be relatively few surprises among its findings. The president's recent secret overnight visit to the troops there signaled he already believes the counterinsurgency strategy of NATO commander General David H. Petraeus is working to break the momentum of the Taliban and create the conditions for gradually turning responsibility for the combat mission over to Afghan security forces. But whether the upbeat assessment is realistic may depend as much on whom you're talking to as on actual conditions on the ground.

The review overseen by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will cite some modest gains that, if they hold, will allow the U.S. to start bringing home some of its troops by July of next year. That includes pushing insurgents out of their former stronghold in Kandahar province and ratcheting up drone attacks and nighttime raids by special operations forces against militants. U.S. commanders claim they have killed or captured hundreds of mid-level Taliban leaders in recent months in an effort to demoralize the insurgency. But the resistance movement has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to regenerate itself, with new leaders springing up to replace those killed or captured.

The report will also acknowledge there's still a lot of hard fighting to be done and that the American combat role there likely will continue at least through 2014. Many parts of Afghanistan intended to be building blocks for Mr. Obama's revised war plan are still not secure, and in the year since the president ordered a surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the country, the insurgency has spread from the south and east to the north and west. This summer saw an average of 75 insurgent attacks a day on coalition forces, a higher rate than last year. In just the month of November, 57 NATO soldiers were killed, nearly twice the number over the same period a year ago. Meanwhile assassinations of government officials and aid workers remain a daily threat to reconstruction efforts.

Given that there are as many signs of stalemate as of progress in the war, any upbeat assessment is a subject of dispute among Afghans themselves. Recently the former chief of the Afghan intelligence service told The Washington Post that while there have been some successes, the fundamentals of the problem faced by the U.S. "remain unchanged." Foremost among them are the ongoing corruption and incompetence of the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the two-faced policy of neighboring Pakistan, which publicly supports the U.S. effort while secretly allowing its powerful Inter-Services intelligence agency to maintain safe havens for top Taliban leaders in the lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border.

President Karzai's erratic and unpredictable behavior has exasperated American officials and vastly compounded the difficulty of bringing basic government services to areas the military has cleared of insurgents, which is a key element of Mr. Obama's strategy for winning popular support for the U.S.-led effort. Mr. Karzai has thwarted efforts to root out corrupt officials in his government, including his younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the governor of Kandahar province who is widely suspected of being a major narcotics trafficker. Earlier this year he also blocked an Afghan anti-corruption unit's investigation of a top aide and ordered the man released with all charges dropped. More recently, he infuriated U.S. officials by barring the private security contractors who guard State Department and development personnel from operating in the country, potentially bringing thousands of reconstruction projects to a halt. To top it all off, he's been known to indulge in fits of pique in which he accused NATO and the U.S. of being as much enemies of Afghanistan as the Taliban.

Pakistan's role in abetting that insurgency is, if anything, even more problematic than Mr. Karzai's failings as a leader. An economically and politically unstable regime armed with nuclear weapons and obsessed with its military rivalry with India, Pakistan's intelligence service views the Taliban as a hedge against any eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that would create a power vacuum in the region. Pakistan, which backed the Taliban's rise to power in 1996 following the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ensuing civil war, apparently is playing a double game in which it is accepting billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid to battle the insurgency while covertly propping up the movement's top leadership and allowing it to plot cross-border attacks on NATO forces from bases on its territory.

There's little doubt that if Pakistan moved forcefully against the militants it would take the wind out of the Afghan insurgency, or that if President Karzai cleaned up his government, efforts to create a stable democracy there might have a real chance of succeeding. But after 10 years of American involvement in Afghanistan, neither possibility seems likely anytime soon, let alone in the six months between now and the start of the planned U.S. withdrawal in July. President Obama thus finds himself in a dismal predicament where his two most important allies might as well be his worst enemies for all they're contributing to the mission of defeating the Taliban.

We've questioned from the beginning whether the added expenditure of American blood and treasure was worth it under the circumstances, which have only gotten worse over the course of what has become America's longest foreign conflict. Mr. Obama campaigned on a promise to wind down the war in Iraq and win against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But victory on the president's terms may no longer be possible there, at least at any reasonable price. In that case, Mr. Obama's best course of action now may be a change in strategy to essentially limit American losses to the 1,400 U.S. soldiers who have already died in fighting there and shifting the military campaign to drone attacks and special forces raids against Al-Qaeda and its allies. That would mean writing off as unworkable our troubled alliances with Pakistan and the Karzai government and, sadly, breaking trust with the Afghan people whom we promised to protect. But ultimately that may be preferable to an endless war that we can neither win nor honorably disengage from because our feckless allies insist on doing everything they can to ensure our defeat.

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