Kabuki in Kabul

Now you see it; now you think you see it; now you don't see it. There it is! Guess that's where it was all along. That sequence of perception is the aim of every crafty stage manager in a festival of masks. Of every three card monte dealer. Shift images so rapidly, dissemble so artfully that what the viewer thought was true ceases to matter since the truth is constantly assuming novel forms. That renders the past forms obsolete -- or, in today's political parlance, inoperative. Afghanistan is one venue for this latest form of public theatre staged previously in Iraq, Palestine and other Middle East hot spots. (Actually, the art form was perfected in domestic settings, but that's another story).

A few months ago, President Obama told us with his perfect clarity what we were doing in Afghanistan, and Pakistan too. We were there to destroy al-Qaeda and to crush the Taliban. The latter objective was essential since we could not tolerate even the possibility that the Taliban might provide refuge for al-Qaeda types any time in the future. No return option. ("We must deny al-Qaeda a safe haven.") Therefore, it was imperative that we break the Taliban as a political force once and for all. First eliminate their fighters physically and then eliminate them as a movement. Moreover, this must be done across the invisible Durand Line in northwest Pakistan since the Pashtun nation straddles that nominal border. The logic was comprehensible -- whether realistic and necessary or not. This line of thinking implied a beefed-up commitment -- 'with no time limit' added sotto voce by the Pentagon within days. Change any one of those factors in the equation and the White House's justification for an escalated war collapses.

One of these key factors is changing. Now the talk is of 'bringing the Taliban into the political process.' Secretary Gates says it, albeit with the stringent condition that only the not-so-bad Taliban who renounce violence are welcome. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says : let them all come so long as they leave their AK 47s outside the tent where the loya jirga is held. Afghan President Karzai has been promoting the idea of outreach for a year or more. Our Pakistani allies agree in principle while firming up ties with 'their' Taliban. What of al-Qaeda -- the point of the whole enterprise? The hundred or so ragged remnants somewhere in North Waziristan, or Quetta, or Karachi? Well, we're still working on 'attritting' them. Overall, this is a sensible approach. It sure beats an endless counter insurgency campaign against a deeply rooted movement that never once has attacked the United States or its citizens outside of Afghanistan.

However, were there such an outbreak of good sense in Washington, this turn would contradict the logically coherent argument offered in December by Obama for why were getting deeper into Afghanistan. Simply put, a place for the Taliban at the Kabul table cannot be reconciled with the stated aim of making absolutely sure that never again must we live with the slightest prospect that Taliban elements might connive with al-Qaeda or its successors. Yet, who can predict whether a modus vivendi reached in Kabul will endure, that it will encompass all Taliban factions, over the entire country? And what about those elements in Pakistan, will they be parties to the deal? No one can say, of course. Political deals have been made and unmade in Afghanistan since time immemorial. It's the national pastime.

Here is where the Kabuki comes in. You can bet your bottom dollar that the measure of success in Afghanistan will begin to shift. It won't any longer be absolute certainty that the country will be free of terrorists and their possible hosts. It will be "strong expectations that....," "we are confident that...." As our Special Envoy for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, declared last year: "we'll know success when we see it." A more honest statement would have been, "we'll know success when we decide to define as success whatever we can manage....and can persuade the American people to see things our way."

There remains one more clever twist -- safeguards against retrogression by keeping a substantial American garrison in the country indefinitely along with our multi-billion dollar airbases from which helicopter gunships and drones -- as well as fixed wing aircraft -- are launched. It will be matched by our new billion dollar embassy to house those Americans assigned to oversee Afghan politics and civil affairs. The model is Iraq; or, more exactly, Iraq as we had visualized it before Mr. Maliki insisted on Iraqi terms for our continued presence. There, the Maliki government has confined our military to their barracks except on his call and our civilians to the precarious status of part-time consultants.

Is it really possible that Mr. Karzai, the Pashtuns and other stiff-necked Afghans would show themselves equally ungrateful for the blessings that we have bestowed on them? If that shocking scenario were to come to pass, then you can bet your last Yuan that the White House will trumpet our success in instilling among Afghans a newfound sense of self-determination. Yes! That's what it's been about from the start; how could you miss what I made perfectly clear?