In public, defeat in Afghanistan is unthinkable for western governments. In private, for many it already seems inevitable – at least if the western definition of “victory” remains the vastly overblown goals set since the overthrow of the Taliban, within any timeframe that is likely to be acceptable to western electorates.
In recent meetings involving Nato officials I have been struck by the combination of public acknowledgment that, to achieve real and stable progress in Afghanistan, western forces will probably have to remain there for a generation at least, and deep private scepticism that western publics will stay the course for anything like that long. Indeed, most plans have the hopeless aim of producing clear results within three years, for fear that otherwise Canada will not prolong its presence beyond 2011 and the whole Nato effort will begin to unravel.
Similarly, public statements of faith in Afghan democracy are coupled with private expressions of near-despair when it comes to hopes of improving Hamid Karzai’s administration. Many western officials admit privately that any real hopes of creating a democratic Afghanistan are now dead. “If we could get a moderately civilised and effective military dictatorship, we’d be very lucky indeed,” was the grim comment of one senior officer.