Keystone Kops

Environmentalists picked the wrong battle in opposing the Keystone XL project.

The polarizing debate about whether the United States should issue a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pipe crude from oil sands near Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, is an almost surreal lesson in issue-framing. The pipeline has become a political football in an election season: Republicans have used it as a cudgel to paint President Barack Obama as a job-killer, while the White House hails it as a rare victory for environmentalists at a time when much of its climate change agenda has stalled.

The political point-scoring has only served to obscure the issues raised by Keystone XL. Oil is likely to be in short supply in the coming years, given the turmoil in the Middle East. Therefore, U.S. environmentalists are unlikely to be able to stop Canada -- which, ironically, has a far more proactive greenhouse gas management policy than the United States -- from finding buyers and transportation for its secure and readily available oil, no matter how much pollution it may create.

Because it crosses international borders, Keystone XL needs a presidential permit from the U.S. State Department to move forward. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially indicated that such approval would be forthcoming, but a political uproar from environmentalists delayed the decision. Congressional Republicans inserted a provision in a tax bill giving the administration a Feb. 21 deadline to make a decision, but on Jan. 18 Obama gave the pipeline a thumbs-down, saying that the deadline made it impossible to adequately assess the pipeline's environmental impact. The saga continued on Jan. 30, as 44 senators signed their names to a new bill that would green-light the pipeline, bypassing the president.

As Keystone XL has been transformed into an election issue, both sides have shifted their line of attack. Republicans have largely abandoned the claim that Canada's oil is important for U.S. energy security, preferring to slam the president for dumping a plan that they say would have created 20,000 American jobs. Primary contender Newt Gingrich has assailed the president for his "utterly irrational" policy, which would "kill American jobs, weaken American energy, [and] make us more vulnerable to the Iranians."

Environmental groups have also switched their messaging. They originally criticized the line for carrying crude from oil sands, which require higher carbon emissions and large-scale water demands to produce than conventional oil. However, after an oil pipeline leak in North Dakota, environmentalists pressed the White House to consider the risk that leaks would pollute the locally important freshwater Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.

Beneath the bombast, both sides should learn important lessons from this clash. The oil industry should learn that one cannot steamroll over clean-water concerns by pithily pointing out that tens of thousands of miles of existing energy pipelines already traverse the Ogallala Aquifer. Engaging the public is going to be critical for other energy producers seeking licenses to operate, as Shell's successful bid to drill in Alaska's Chukchi Sea indicates. The international major has said that it has paid $350 million for two ice-breaking disaster-preparedness ships to respond to any potential accident as part of the $4 billion it has already spent on the process.

But there is also a lesson for Americans who care about the environment: Vital infrastructure is not a good choice for a political litmus test. America's energy future is inextricably linked with its northern neighbor. Canada is the largest crude oil exporter to the United States, supplying 22 percent of imports, and its production is expected to increase by 1 million to 2 million barrels a day over the next decade. That's in sharp contrast with Mexico, the next-largest U.S. supplier at 11 percent, which is facing steep production declines and could become a net oil importer over the next decade, according to a study published last year by the Baker Institute.

As oil supplies from the Middle East look increasingly tenuous, the United States has an obvious national interest in cultivating imports from its neighbors. What's more, it is unlikely -- given sky-high demand for crude -- that secure oil found in these locales will remain unproduced. If Keystone is ultimately denied a permit, chances are the oil will move by train or truck, creating even more greenhouse gases and chances of industrial accidents than a pipeline. A study last August prepared by EnSys Energy and Navigistics Consulting for the departments of Energy and State argues that rail capacity for 500,000 to 1 million barrels per day of crude coming into the United States appears available today and that rail could increase capacity by at least 1.25 million barrels per day by 2030.

So while the United States needs to take its environmental management seriously, environmental supporters also need to choose their battles wisely. A tremendous effort went into blocking the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of weaning the United States off oil. But in fact, all that effort likely won't block the actual oil -- it will just find different ways to reach the U.S. market.

The only way to decrease U.S. reliance on oil is to lobby for policies that help consumers need less of it. That will require more fuel-efficient cars and public transportation, tighter environmental building standards, higher numbers of natural gas- or electric-powered fleets, and even -- perish the thought -- higher taxes on oil use. What does not help is political mudslinging over the Keystone XL pipeline, which only serves to distract from the real issues.

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The Coming Civil War in Afghanistan

It's not inevitable, but it's more likely than ever before. Here's how to avoid the worst.

By the end of this summer, the 30,000 U.S. troops "surged" into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama's administration will have returned home. And according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the remaining 68,000 American soldiers could end their combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, more than a year ahead of the White House's deadline for leaving the country.

America's war in Afghanistan is by no means over, but its end has already begun. That reality is clear to all Afghan factional chiefs and power brokers, who are preparing for the transition to a post-American Afghanistan. As Afghanistan's alliances and power dynamics shift, the risk of cvil, ethnic conflict breaking out in the country rises -- endangering not only Afghans, but their Pakistani neighbors as well. And ironically, talk of peace and a U.S. withdrawal is contributing to a widening gap between key Afghan factions, which, if not properly contained, could lead to a renewed civil war.

President Hamid Karzai's intentions remain one potential source of instability looming in Afghanistan's future. Karzai has said that he will retire from public office in 2014, but many Afghans believe he will remain in power through unconventional or extra-constitutional measures. The president reportedly supported U.S. plans to accelerate the withdrawal by a year, lending weight to the theory that he is looking for greater maneuverability to prolong his rule.

If Karzai steps down, his replacement -- should one not come from his own family -- is likely to adopt a more hostile approach toward the Taliban, increasing the odds that the insurgency will fester. Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the rigged 2009 elections and could throw his hat in the ring once again, is a major Taliban opponent. But if Karzai seeks to stick around, doing so will be no cakewalk. Karzai will face stiff resistance from both a parliament that increasingly demands an expansion of its oversight powers and a rejuvenated political opposition, the National Front for Afghanistan (NFA).

The NFA is a bloc of leaders from three major non-Pashtun communities -- the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara -- all of whom opposed the Taliban and Pakistan during the 1990s and remain hostile to both. As Karzai apparently seeks to hold on to executive power, the NFA is pushing for an overhaul of the country's political system. It advocates restructuring Afghanistan as a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation and locally-devolved power -- both of which would benefit non-Pashtuns.

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, seeks a political settlement with the three major insurgent factions -- all Pashtuns as well -- led by Mullah Muhammad Omar's Afghan Taliban. But the NFA, as well as a large bloc of parliamentarians from a diverse assortment of ethnic groups and political parties, are hostile to talks with the Taliban, and will at the very least demand a meaningful role in the peace process.

That remains difficult to imagine, as few Afghans aside from the insurgents remain involved in the peace talks. The most promising dialogue track has so far taken place outside of Afghanistan and involves the Afghan Taliban and the governments of Germany, Qatar, and the United States. The location of the Taliban's new office in Qatar was decided against the wishes of the Afghan government, which wanted the office to be in Ankara or Riyadh.

Karzai himself remains minimally involved in the talks and is trying to set up his own negotiations with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. However, neither the Saudis nor the Taliban are keen on participating. The Saudis have distrusted the Taliban ever since it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden; they will engage the militant group only when it formally breaks ties with al Qaeda. The Taliban, meanwhile, want to cut out Karzai and engage directly with the United States to increase their negotiating leverage.

Karzai faces a difficult balancing act: He must first insert himself into a peace process the Taliban want him to have no part in, and then somehow manage to maintain ties with both the Pashtun Taliban and the non-Pashtun NFA. In any negotiations, the Taliban will undoubtedly push for greater implementation of Islamic law. But members of the NFA, female parliamentarians, and religious minorities such as the Hazara Shiites will resist what they will view as a possible reversion to second-class status.

Building trust between the NFA and the Taliban is key to a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan, but it will be no easy task. The Taliban believe that the NFA seeks a soft partition of the country under the guise of federalism, describing the group's leadership as "infamous warlords." And it is a giant and improbable leap for the Taliban to go from advocating the reestablishment of an authoritarian Islamic emirate to accepting the NFA's demand for a parliamentary democracy.

The underlying divisions between the three insurgent groups will also likely come out into the open if peace talks progress. In contrast to the Afghan Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (HIG) calls for a republican-style Islamic government that is more reconcilable with today's Afghan constitution. And Hekmatyar, who briefly served as Afghanistan's prime minister until he fled the Taliban's advance in 1997, likely remains an aspirant for the country's leadership. Both the parliament and Karzai's cabinet are replete with ex-HIG members, and Hekmatyar could present himself as a more practical, Islamic alternative to Mullah Omar. As a result, Hekmatyar's tactical alliance with the Taliban will likely come to an end once the U.S. presence recedes.

The future of the infamous Haqqani network is also unclear. While it does not have a rich political history, it is a group with a radical agenda and potent reach. In a stable political environment, the Haqqani network is likely to remain on board with the Taliban. Amid a political vacuum, the Haqqanis could seek to claim space in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, posing a particular security threat in Afghanistan's southeastern Loya Paktia region and the adjacent Kurram and North Waziristan tribal areas across the Durand Line.

With Afghanistan's three major political blocs and three major insurgent groups moving in opposite directions, the country is facing the prospect of total fragmentation. Here's the worst-case scenario: The U.S. military reaches a settlement with the Afghan Taliban that does not address the country's political future, Karzai holds on to power illegitimately while pressing for his own peace deal with the Taliban, non-Pashtuns rise in opposition to both Karzai and the Taliban, and the national security forces fracture along ethnic lines. At the same time, the three insurgent factions turn against one another as the Haqqani network exploits the chaos and maintains a rear defensive position in Pakistani safe havens. Meanwhile, Pakistan's own domestic Taliban resurges and Islamabad faces yet another wave of terrorism and Afghan refugees.

Such a catastrophe should encourage leaders in Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad to do everything in their power to reach a broad-based political settlement. To avoid this scenario, the U.S.-Taliban talks should somehow be transitioned to an Afghan-led process involving not only the Karzai government but also the NFA. Afghans will have to come to a consensus about the future of their system of government and power-sharing, with final approval from a loya jirga or grand council.

A lasting Afghan peace might be a pipe dream in the short term, but both Afghanistan and the United States should try to coax Pakistan into making the Taliban more amenable to one. In return, Pakistan would get an official seat at the table. While there can and likely will be multiple, parallel negotiating tracks, they should ultimately lead up to a multi-party conference involving the Karzai government, the NFA, Pakistan, the United States, and each of the three major insurgent groups.

Finally, to contain the Taliban's ambitions, it is imperative that coalition forces and Kabul focus on improving the quality, not the quantity, of the Afghan national army and police. The 300,000 army soldiers and nearly 150,000 national policemen -- in addition to the country's unruly local militias -- are not only financially unsustainable, but also dangerous. The massive number of unpaid, armed troops in this conflict-ridden country is a recipe for disaster. The militias should be phased out, and the army professionalized to serve as a bulwark against fragmentation. Only then, perhaps, can Afghanistan avoid the perils of its post-American future.

Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images