This article originally appeared in the National Interest online under the title "Collapse Imminent in Afghanistan" on April 21, 2011

The drumbeat for an accelerated U.S. exit from Afghanistan goes on. The intramural debate within the administration was put on hold following the president’s December 2009 West Point speech, while the economy and congressional elections pushed criticism of our Afghan war policy off center stage for much of 2010. The Arab world uprisings have done the same in early 2011. In the wings, however, columnists, bloggers, and think-tank pundits have relentlessly pressed their case that the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is doomed to fail, arguing for either more narrowly defined military objectives or greater dedication toward finding a political solution. Proposals to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban contained in an influential report issued last month by the Century Foundation are only the latest addition to the debate.

The clamor for a smaller military footprint in Afghanistan is expected to grow during the year with the predicted uptick in the level of violence. The October 2010 NATO meeting in Lisbon that set the end of 2014 as the deadline for winding down our military commitment has only managed to delay the issue from coming to a head. There are new reasons to question whether the President Karzai is a reliable partner for the current strategy, especially as his rhetoric has apparently spiked anti-Americanism among the Afghan people. Without the counterinsurgency showing visible progress by July, when troop reductions are slated to begin, pressures for a significant reset of Afghan policy can be expected to build.

Right now, the counterinsurgency faces long odds. Signs of arresting the Taliban offensive are reported in the south, but everyone acknowledges their fragility. The readiness of the Afghan security forces to assume their projected role remains problematic. Aggressive NATO operations that have caught innocents in the crossfire and development grants that have benefited mostly local power brokers have helped turn many Afghans against us. Even if the current military strategy gives indications of success, and greater gains are registered in effecting development and governance reforms, many feel that it will have come too late, with far too much ground to make up. Meanwhile, the continued existence of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan may thwart all of our best efforts.

While wide agreement prevails on the need for a political outcome to the war, Taliban leaders may be the only ones left still believing in a military solution to the conflict. Eager to get high-level talks underway, domestic critics of the current strategy have minimized the absence of credible Taliban intermediaries and overplayed the interest of senior leaders in serious power sharing. Even if talks began, they could drag out for years. Tactical reintegration of lower- and middle-level Taliban, involving many political arrangements, in fact offers a more realistic prospect. But unless NATO’s present strategy soon shows measurable success, the alliance will face strong pressures to begin the shift from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. The latter strategy would have coalition forces circling their wagons around a few key cities, assisting friendly ethnic militias in the north, and mounting offshore surgical strikes against insurgents. In so doing, we would relinquish the country’s south and east to the Taliban, creating a de facto Afghan partition.

Plainly, it would be disingenuous to depict, as some pundits have, the consequences of a failed counterinsurgency as benign. All the proposed alternatives to the current strategy offer a lower probability of curbing terrorists with global ambitions. They are also destined to deny the Afghan people their hard won gains in human rights and improvements politically and economically. We should not fool ourselves and others into believing this would be the end of fighting and suffering. Nor should we overlook the deep impact across the region, most of all on Pakistan. Nothing could be more fanciful than a Three Cups of Tea strategy—that if we help to build schools and count on other exercises of soft power, the “true believers” leading the insurgency could be trusted to turn over a new leaf. To contend that they are merely patriotic nationalists is to ignore an ideological transition that began more than a decade ago. Sadly, all the various, seemingly compelling Plan B options are laced with a heavy dose of wishful thinking.

Once it becomes clear that the U.S. and its coalition partners are giving up on counterinsurgency, the Taliban leaders will lose whatever incentives exist for serious compromise in a national reconciliation. A shift to a counterterrorism strategy would elevate the need for Pakistan’s military cooperation in ways that it has consistently resisted as being contrary to its strategic interests. With a reduced NATO presence countrywide, even a strengthened training mission will not be enough to keep Afghan security forces from fracturing, or a hunkered down Kabul government from soon collapsing. With no prospect of development assistance or governance reform, Afghans across the country can be expected to turn against residual coalition forces. A proxy civil war is predictable with Iran, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan backing their various Afghan clients. Fearing retribution, ethnic cleansing, and economic deprivation, millions of Afghans are likely to flee again to Pakistan and Iran, creating a humanitarian crisis that dwarfs any previous exodus. NATO’s retreat, certain to be portrayed by the Taliban as a defeat, will rally international terrorists, energize anti-government militants in Pakistan, help reignite insurgencies in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and ensure Iranian hegemony in western Afghanistan.

Faced with these dismal outcomes, the ongoing counterinsurgency, fine-tuned where necessary, ought to be given a reasonable opportunity to prove itself. If we are forced to begin to disengage, let us do so with our eyes open and not succumb to the siren song of those who ignore or minimize the probable fallout from failure. At the very least we should not lose the war at home before it’s been lost in Afghanistan.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.