If actions speak louder than words, the U.S. military this week seemed to confirm the pessimistic findings of the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it had pooh-poohed only last week. The military assessment emphasized a rosy picture of gains in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan, whereas the NIEs, a product of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, acknowledged some gains in those two provinces but focused on Pakistan’s unwillingness to shut down guerrilla sanctuaries across the border as a serious obstacle. Last week, the military commanders tried to discredit the NIE by saying it was an out-of-date effort by intelligence chairborne divisions that had spent only limited, if any, time in Afghanistan. This week, however, senior American military commanders in Afghanistan—seemingly acknowledging the validity of the desk jockeys’ main point—are advocating a risky expansion of Special Operations ground raids across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border to attack those Taliban sanctuaries, also reflecting a growing frustration with Pakistan’s lack of effort there.

Furthermore, as the military emphasized gains in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, it downplayed the spread of the insurgency and instability into northern Afghanistan. Guerrilla warfare often resembles the “Whack-a-Mole” game—when superior counterinsurgent forces attack into an area, the rebels pop up somewhere else. The same problem happened in 1983, when the El Salvadorian government was battling communist rebels. When the government’s counterinsurgency forces pacified one part of the country, the guerrillas just fled to another area. Guerrillas often take the path of least resistance. And because their hit-and-run attacks can be done more cheaply and efficiently than those of the counterinsurgent, time is usually on their side; they can simply wait for the government or the outside occupier to become exhausted and give up.

Finally, reflecting the spread of the insurgency to other parts of Afghanistan, the normally publicity-shy International Committee of the Red Cross held a rare press conference, at the time of the U.S. military’s rosy assessment, seemingly to also debunk it. The Red Cross said that by all its rigorous measures, the security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated to its worst state since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.

Increasing U.S. drone strikes and stepped-up cross-border ground raids in Pakistan, however, will only further roil a country with nuclear weapons that was much more stable before the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Such U.S. actions will likely only fuel already rampant anti-American sentiment and radicalize even more Islamists.

In 2011, a pledged start of U.S. force withdrawals from Afghanistan will probably happen simultaneously with expanded U.S. Special Operations ground raids into Pakistan and ever increasing drone attacks in that country’s airspace. This situation is reminiscent of U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam at the same time as America’s secret escalation of the war in Cambodia to hit similar guerrilla sanctuaries.

Is there a better way to end this war than simultaneous Vietnam-like escalation and de-escalation? Yes.

First, people, governments, and insurgencies all respond to incentives, so let’s look at the goals of various parties to the war.

  • India wants influence in Afghanistan to sandwich its archrival—Pakistan—in between itself and an Indian-dominated Afghanistan.
  • Pakistan, to avoid being the meat in the sandwich, wants a Pakistan-friendly government in Afghanistan. To get that, it supports the Afghan Taliban even though the Taliban’s enemy—the United States—slathers it with billions of dollars in aid annually.
  • President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government don’t trust Pakistan and would prefer for the Taliban to be defeated, but they seem to be trying to cut a deal with the Taliban out of fear that the U.S. will withdraw from Afghanistan.
  • The Afghan Taliban want to take power in Afghanistan or at least be part of a power-sharing government. They also want the foreign invaders cast out of Afghanistan.
  • Al-Qaeda central wants to attack the United States and its allies because of their interference in and occupation of Muslim lands.
  • The United States’ only goal should be an Afghanistan and Pakistan that do not provide sanctuary for a-Qaeda.

The problem is that the U.S. goal in Afghanistan—although President Obama has reduced it from George W. Bush’s instituting democracy to merely stabilizing the country—is still too ambitious. The United States needs to divide the interests of radical groups, not mobilize them to become allies. In particular, the United States should attempt to divide the Afghan Taliban and their supporters in the Pakistani government from al-Qaeda. To do this, instead of attacking into Pakistan—thus revving up all militant groups and alienating the Pakistani government, which has to deal with the resulting inflamed anti-Americanism—the U.S. should cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistanis. This gambit would resemble the buying off of the opposition that worked to lower the violence in Iraq. If no deal is cut, the Pakistanis and the Afghan Taliban naturally will keep pursuing their common interest of having a Taliban-influenced Afghan government, and the Pakistanis will resist turning over Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership—keeping them as the ultimate bargaining chip vis-à-vis the United States.

But what if the U.S. gave the Taliban and Pakistan what they wanted—either partial or total control over the Afghan government? In addition, the U.S. would pledge a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. In exchange, the Pakistanis would have to turn over the al-Qaeda leadership, and Afghanistan and Pakistan would no longer harbor anyone from the group.

The U.S. might as well attempt this deal while it still has some leverage. Eventually, the U.S. will have to withdraw from Afghanistan and thus allow the Taliban some role in the Afghan government, but later will probably not get any concessions in return.

Cutting a deal now seems like a radical approach, but in the long term, the U.S. likely has a losing hand in Afghanistan and needs to get the best deal possible while it still has some bargaining power.