That's where we're at with Afghanistan. Here's the background: the security situation is getting worse, the Afghan government is a farce, Bin Laden is still not captured, neither Pakistan nor India will stop meddling, American citizens are tired of war, America's public discourse is juvenile, the President has boxed himself into a rhetorical corner, and the federal government is broke. But the only two options being discussed are more troops (shit), or altering strategy with the current level of troops (continue to sit). A third, withdrawing (get off), was preemptively dismissed. And that was a big mistake.
What (most) Americans don't understand is that their country is operating in imperial overreach territory. Literally. Afghanistan eats invaders for breakfast. Which is truly amazing - or entirely unsurprising - because there is no such thing as Afghanistan. As Alan Grayson put it, it's simply an empty place on a map. It's a label applied to an area not covered other labels, ones that more-or-less corresponded with a political entity.
I admit that, way back when, I was supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda was there, the Taliban was medieval, and the US did sort of abandon the country once the proxy war with the Soviet Union ended. When Bush started transferring resources to Iraq I worried that the moment for lasting change in Afghanistan - tenuous though it was - would be lost. And it has been.
Now, after six years of tragic stupidity in Iraq, the nation's somewhat bleary focus is back on Afghanistan. But the context has changed. In 2001 there was not a monumental hole in the federal government's finances. It was before the country had muddled through another 7 years of inaction on energy, global warming, health care, infrastructure, education, and a host of other issues. And it was before every segment of the private economy - except the ultra-rich - drowned themselves in debt. The federal budget deficit for FY09 is likely to reach a whopping 10% of GDP. Gross federal, state, and local debt is approaching 100% of GDP. All of which is by way of saying: the US can't afford to shit. Even if the economy were to recover robustly (unlikely), there would still be large structural budget deficit that needs to be resolved. Something will have to give - taxes, spending, or both.
At the risk of sounding like a DFH, I feel our attempt to police the world should be the first spending item to be scaled back. Too many people have come to conflate their own self-image with the country's ability to bomb foreigners. Yet, at home, we treat each other like dirt, forcing people to go to extraordinary lengths to get health care. The mis-allocation is unsustainable.
Thus I believe the United States should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The people of the non-country shouldn't be abandoned like they were at the end of the 1980s. But instead of attempting to impose security, we should send aid in two forms. One should be cash, distributed at all levels of government and to NGOs. The other should be equipment and supplies - construction equipment, steel beams and rebar, transportation equipment, telecommunications equipment, water and sewage equipment, and medical supplies. We should let the Afghans (Pashtuns, Tajikis, Hazarai, etc.) build their own country as they see fit. Or not. $10B between the two streams per year should be enough, considering that the country's current GDP is estimated to be $20B or $30B per year. It would be a bargain compared to the $65B that has been allocated directly to operations in Afghanistan for 2009.