The Washington debate over Af-Pak strategy has had it backward: This war is less about trying to defeat the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan than it is about reaching an understanding with Pakistan that closes Taliban safe havens there and allows a political reconciliation among the warring Afghan parties. It's a Pak-Af problem, not the other way around.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to recognize this reality; that's why he's holding his peace jirga, meeting with Taliban contacts and sacking an intelligence chief Pakistan regards as an enemy. President Obama seems to appreciate the likely political endgame, but he spends too little time explaining this conflict to a skeptical American public.
One reason our Afghanistan strategy is so puzzling is that people don't have a clear picture of what the United States is trying to achieve. We know from political science studies that when a strategy becomes fuzzy, political support vanishes. This was true in Vietnam and Iraq, and it's now happening with Afghanistan.
The most useful analysis I've seen recently is "The Key to Success in Afghanistan: A Modern Silk Road Strategy." It was prepared by the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It also had major input from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war.
The Silk Road study tries to visualize the kind of Afghanistan that might exist after U.S. troops begin coming home starting in July 2011. Instead of being a lawless frontier, this post-conflict Afghanistan would be a transit route for Eurasia, providing trade corridors north and south, east and west.
I first heard discussion of this modern Silk Road idea from Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister. He made a powerful analogy to America's own development: What secured our lawless Wild West frontier was the transcontinental railroad in 1869. With trade and economic growth came stability.
Asian nations understand the benefits they could gain from transit links across Afghanistan. Take the ring road that links Afghanistan's biggest cities; the United States has pumped $1.8 billion into this and other road projects since 2002, but neighboring Iran has also put up a hefty $220 million. China has built roads connecting its western Xinjiang province with Afghanistan and the Chinese are now building a $50 million roadway in Wardak province.
There was a buzz last week because of a U.S. estimate that Afghanistan could possess $1 trillion in mineral wealth. That's a pipe dream for now, but what's real is a Chinese project to invest $3 billion in the Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul. To transport the copper, China has pledged to build a new railway route north.
Hold on! How can you think of building roads, railways and pipelines when there's a war going on? Doesn't security have to come first for Afghanistan, before economic development will be possible?
Yes, and that's why this Silk Road study is so valuable. It explains the longer-term mission that U.S. troops are serving. More to the point, it explains why it would be in the interest of all the regional powers -- especially Pakistan -- to encourage a political settlement of the war that would open Afghanistan and other Central Asian markets to Pakistani merchants.
If we think less about "clear and hold" and more about roads and railways, maybe people in America -- and Pakistan, India and China, too -- will understand better what's to be gained from a more stable Afghanistan.