The first law of holes is when you are in one stop digging. If the NATO nations are honest, they have as much idea about what to do next in Afghanistan as the Soviet generals did in 1988 — the year in which the relatively new secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided that the Red Army should cut its horrific losses and pull out and leave the Afghans to fight each other.
The Afghan tribes have an uninterrupted record of success in resisting the foreign invader — Genghis Khan, the Persians, the British in Winston Churchill's day as a subaltern, the Soviets and now NATO. Time, they know, is on their side. Their rifles, explosives and suicide bombers are a match for the most modern weapons in NATO's armory. The only thing that could possibly subdue them would be a massive number of NATO boots on the ground, prepared to engage in close-up fighting, but to find numbers of this order would mean switching the full force of America's military might from Iraq to Afghanistan and persuading America's allies to beef up their contributions to levels that would triple or quadruple present deployments.
While the politicians are finding it hard to come to terms with leading a retreat, given the constant pressure form Washington, they are — as Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear — slowly but clearly turning tail. It is no use that the so-called opinion leaders in the strategic think-tanks and newspaper editorial pages are warning of disaster if there is a pullout. They are not the ones getting killed for a hopeless cause. Moreover, even the most informed of them do not seem able to map out a convincing scenario for turning the tables on the Taleban.
A few thousand more troops, a better coordinated aid program, an imposed Western czar, a beefed-up local police force — none of these will work as long as Afghanistan has its poppies and mountains and corruption continues to seep into almost every pore of society. If this were doable, it would have been done by now.
The stakes, we all know, are high because the Taleban, with their tribal network spanning across a ridiculously placed border dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan, give refuge to Al-Qaeda. Getting rid of Al-Qaeda must be a priority on the world's common agenda. But this is not the way to do it. And economically and socially developing Afghanistan can only be done when the populace face down their local persecutors and oppressors and demand it.
So how to deal with Al-Qaeda? The mistakes date from the immediate reaction to 9/11. Afghanistan should never have been bombed. That immediately marked America and Britain as the enemy in the minds of a good proportion of the Afghans.
But that mistake was part of a larger mistake — the determination to go to war with modern military means against Al-Qaeda — a grouping of a few hundred at that time — even if it meant putting at mortal risk the populations of whole countries, Afghanistan, Iraq and, if Barack Obama continues his threat, perhaps Pakistan.
The Anglo-American onslaught, accompanied in Afghanistan by a 37-nation coalition, has created more Al-Qaeda militants than it has killed. It has alienated most of the Muslim world and has provided reason for tens of thousands of preachers, hundreds of thousands of enraged young men and millions of ordinary folk to talk of hitting back. The mild majority does it by thought and word. A few thousand are now determined to do it by deed. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the situation in Pakistan deteriorate, these numbers will grow geometrically.
Osama bin Laden and his intimates should have been run down by careful international police work, just as the Israelis ran down so many hiding Nazi leaders and Interpol and the French successfully hunted down the (then) world´s worst terrorist, Carlos "the Jackal" aka Illich Ramirez Sanchez. The best Persian-speaking Pakistani detectives should have been drafted into a special Interpol task force manned by the best (and darkest complexioned) of the FBI and Scotland Yard.
It is probably still not too late to change tactics 180 degrees, although the job will be much harder than it would have been six years ago. Who has the courage to stand up and say this, or are European and Canadian leaders just going to scuttle away from the mess one by one, leaving the Americans to stew in their juice?