Courtesy Reuters Mullah Naqibullah, a commander and politician from Kandahar, circa 2002.

Running Out of Time for Afghan Governance Reform

How Little Can we Live With?

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com.

The range of achievable outcomes in Afghanistan is narrowing as Western effort wanes. The ambitious goals of the Bush administration were probably never attainable and are certainly not now. But even minimally democratic accountability may soon be beyond reach. If so, some form of delimited warlord rule will be the outer bound of the achievable. If a new set of bargains between Kabul and provincial powerbrokers can be reached and enforced, such a system could still be tolerable in the limited sense that it could preserve the United States' essential security interests in Afghanistan. But it would be far from ideal. And even this option could slip away if some critical reforms are not instituted soon.

Many Americans see Afghanistan as hopeless and ungovernable -- a chronically violent "graveyard of empires." It is not. For most of the twentieth century, Afghanistan was internally stable and at peace with its neighbors -- in fact, it was a tourist destination for backpacking Westerners in the 1960s. And the Taliban of today are hardly the invincible warriors or authentic vox populi some Westerners assume. A series of coalition offensives since 2009 has driven the Taliban from most of their southern strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar. Taliban counterattacks this summer failed to retake any of the districts they lost. And recent polls show declining Afghan public support for an already unpopular insurgency, as the Taliban have responded to military setbacks by striking civilian targets instead. Afghans know what Taliban government looks like, and in multiple polls over years of war, they have consistently rejected it. While the current government's corruption is unpopular, too, the coalition enjoys the great advantage of an enemy whose ideology is unwelcome. Of course, retaking Taliban-controlled areas is time consuming and costly; the Taliban remain a significant force in the east, and their

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