In Kabul these days, those wishing to sound knowledgeable fire one phrase at visiting reporters: "This has no military solution!" One hears it from President Hamid Karzai, UN "experts" and diplomats. Yet they appear stuck when asked: What precisely is the "this" that has no military solution?
If pressed, they offer various answers: Afghanistan's poverty, gender inequality, corruption, the drug trade, ethnic rivalries and intrigues by rival powers such as Pakistan and Iran.
Obviously, none of those problems has a military solution. But the main problem Afghanistan faces today is the threat posed to the security of its citizens and infrastructure by insurgents using terror tactics such as roadside bombings and suicide attacks.
And that problem does have a military solution -- indeed, the only solution is military. The insurgents must be defeated on the battlefield.
The fact is that, although President Obama has spoken of a "war of necessity," there is little actual fighting in Afghanistan.
The majority of US and other NATO nations' casualties are caused by improvised explosive devices planted on the roads. These devices also kill many noncombatants, mostly Afghan peasants. A few other US/NATO casualties are the results of ambushes organized by insurgents.
The Afghan experience could be divided into three phases. In the first phase, the US, backed by the Afghan Northern Alliance, managed to flush the Taliban out of Kabul, gain control of the country and establish a new regime.
The second phase, between 2004 and 2008, saw America and NATO focusing on such nonmilitary issues as creating a new administrative machine, raising a new Afghan army and police and inventing a new judiciary.
All that was done under the assumption that the UN-backed NATO presence was a peacekeeping, rather than a peace-enforcing, mission. The bulk of NATO forces behaved more like the Salvation Army than a fighting machine in a real war.
US forces did some fighting in the southeastern provinces (often by firing missiles from drones into Pakistan). British, Canadian and French units also did some fighting in the provinces entrusted to them -- but seldom took the initiative by actually going after the insurgents. Their measure of success was the number of children (especially girls) who went to school in areas protected by them, not the number of insurgents killed or captured.
The third phase started in 2008, when President George W. Bush decided to send more troops, a move endorsed by his successor. Washington had realized that there was a military problem, and that it needed a military solution.
In a new strategy developed by Gen. David Petraeus, US forces (with those NATO allies who are prepared to fight) have redefined the mission as one of enforcing peace. The "live and let live" policy, under which insurgents are allowed safe havens, will end.
These safe havens -- concentrated in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Arzangan and Nimroz plus a few spots close to Kabul and Kunduz in the north -- are known to NATO forces but have been tolerated because the allies lacked the resources to destroy them.
NATO has some 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, a country the size of California. Of these, at least a third won't fight because of caveats imposed by their governments.
Gen. Stan McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, might find it hard to go after the insurgents in a big way with just 60,000 or so troops. If Obama intends to win his "war of necessity," he'd have to increase the number of US troops for a fight that might take two or three more years. Even then, McChrystal would need to find allies inside Afghanistan, just as Petraeus did in Iraq.
The Taliban never directly controlled the whole of Afghanistan and lacks the popular support ever to govern the country. They spread their rule, often nominal, by bribing the mujahedeen.
An old proverb goes: You can't buy an Afghan, but you can always hire him. More than 150,000 armed ex-mujahedeen are waiting on the sidelines. The policy of shunning them, and branding their leaders as "warlords," is foolish.
We also have the 180,000 or so members of the new Afghan army and police. Often, these men draw their salaries but spend their time doing the crosswords or at best directing the traffic in Kabul. But experts suggest a third of the army is reliable and competent; embedding them with NATO forces could give them a role in taking the war to the insurgents.
On the other side? The drug-smuggling rings have 15,000 armed men, often cooperating with the Taliban, whose own strength may be 20,000.
Smaller insurgent groups, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) may command a further 5,000 armed men. Yet Hekmatyar worked for the CIA for years, and recently made it clear that he is open to offers.
In a hierarchy of operations, the Taliban is the top target. This could mean making tactical alliances even with some unsavory armed groups, and buying others.
Afghanistan has a military problem that needs a military solution. US strategists are starting to realize that. This war could and must be won. There is no need to panic and cry for an "exit strategy" even before there has been any real fighting.