Two conclusions are inescapable from the fiasco of Afghanistan's presidential elections and the McChrystal assessment: There is no electoral solution to Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy, and there is no military solution to the challenge of the Taliban. And when observing the current Afghan conflict not from the perspective of America's post-9/11 intervention, but from Afghanistan's own quarter-century of warfare, a third conclusion becomes still more apparent: What we confront is not, in fact, an insurgency but rather a civil war -- one whose resolution can only be found in a new decentralized Afghan politics based on the enduring, if ugly, realities of power there, and not through another decade of Western military intervention.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai's main rival from the second round of the elections -- and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term -- it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero, even when the object of our entreaties is a politician whose very existence has long depended entirely on Western support and funding. Like a patient rising from a hospital bed after a near-death experience only to rob his doctor blind on the way out the door, Karzai has conclusively demonstrated that his utility to Western interests -- as well as to the Afghan people whom he's grossly robbed of a chance for representative government -- is over.
This leaves the West with a stark dilemma. We can proceed to invest a government we ourselves have called fraudulent with an authority that few Afghans are willing to grant it, hoping it will eventually eschew the corrupt behavior that has sustained its power to date. Or we can make the unquestionably more difficult decision and insist, as a condition of our continued support, that a new political compact be put in place.
The reality is that the War of 9/11 against al Qaeda and its backers will not be won -- or lost -- in Afghanistan.
It is time to help Afghans resolve their civil war in the only way that is likely to help, and not further hinder, their search for security and stability. Painful as it is, the time has come to set aside the illusion of Afghan democracy and implement a new federal power-sharing agreement between those Afghans willing and able to provide security and governance in a sustainable manner for the Afghan people. The best chance we have of achieving minimal Afghan objectives at an acceptable cost to the West is by establishing a new Loya Jirga -- drawing on the shrewd diplomacy of the 2001 Bonn Conference and the persistent muscle of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, but looking forward as a New Afghanistan Conference.