The Nixon test

Back in the summer of 2011, the editor of Foreign Affairs journal, Gideon Rose, suggested in the pages of The New York Times that the Obama administration draw lessons from the experience of the Vietnam War and implement a "Neo-Nixonian" strategy in Afghanistan.

By combining narrow military escalation and bluffs, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had tried to buy a "decent interval" before the weak US-backed regime in South Vietnam inevitably fell to the north. That interval would separate Washington politically and strategically from the conflict, limiting the costs of America's unwinnable war. Rose then argued that a decent interval was about the best Washington could hope to get in Afghanistan. Today, as Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, debate America's role in the world, it is hard to escape the conclusion that US strategy in Afghanistan is failing to achieve even that minimal, cynical American objective.

The Kabul government is weak. The landlocked state still lacks a viable, licit economy that can support its people. If security deteriorates further, brain drain and capital flight will deliver a body blow to an already shaky situation. In Washington, Obama's top advisors have quietly accepted the idea of aiming for "Afghan good enough" rather than striving to install the foundations for better governance or sustainable economic growth. What this will mean when it comes to protecting progress that has been made in Afghanistan over the past decade — on educating girls, for instance — is a topic US officials prefer to avoid.

The sad truth is that if present trends hold, as American troops leave Afghanistan so will American reporters. Few will notice deteriorating conditions inside Afghanistan, fewer will say anything, and no one will lift a finger. Limited counter-terror operations by cruise missile or drone strikes will be the extent of US activity inside Afghanistan, and even those might be hard to manage effectively over time as local intelligence sources dry up.

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