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Doyle McManus: Afghanistan doubts

Our 9-year-old war in Afghanistan has long had its critics. But now, a number of former officials who once supported the war — or were at least willing to give the U.S. military time to see if it could be won — are questioning whether the benefit of stabilizing Afghanistan is worth the daunting cost.

The doubters include Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the closest thing the United States has to an official "foreign policy establishment"; Leslie Gelb, his predecessor; and Robert Blackwill, a former aide to President Bush.

"The current strategy isn't working, and it's costing roughly $100 billion a year," said Haass, who was an aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. "It's time for a major recalibration: not an immediate withdrawal but a significant scaling down of our ambitions."

And recently, a group of 46 foreign policy experts issued a joint report arguing that the goal of building a unified, stable Afghanistan is beyond the ability of the United States, and unnecessary to boot. The panel, the Afghanistan Study Group, included both longtime critics of the war and some who supported U.S. policy until recently.

"A U.S. military victory over the Taliban is simply not necessary to protect U.S. interests," said one of its members, Paul Pillar, a former CIA counterterrorism official.

In the general public, of course, support for the war in Afghanistan has been declining for at least four years. In a CNN poll this month, 57 percent of respondents said they opposed the war; only 41 percent said they favored it. But that was to be expected as the war dragged on and casualties rose.

"Elite" opinion is harder to measure. Who counts as a member of the foreign policy elite anyway? But looking only at people who have held, or might soon hold, foreign policy jobs in Republican or Democratic administrations, you find increasing skepticism about whether the war is winnable.

Haass, for example, worked for two Republican presidents, Gelb for two Democrats. "I do think opinion is shifting that way," agreed Haass, who favored a robust military intervention in Afghanistan in his Bush administration days. (In 2001, he argued for sending more troops to Kabul to do nation building; Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent them to Iraq instead.)

They cite three main reasons for their escalating pessimism. The first: setbacks (including a major offensive in Kandahar that was scheduled to be in full swing by now but is only getting under way). Next: Afghan President Hamid Karzai's failure to support a U.S.-sponsored anti-corruption campaign. And finally, there's that $100 billion annual price tag.

Where the foreign policy intellectuals make a difference is when they offer not mere opinions but full-blown policy proposals — in this case, to explain how a different, less ambitious strategy in Afghanistan might work. That gives proponents of change something to work with.

The 12-page report of the Afghanistan Study Group proposes ending U.S. military operations in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, and seeking a power-sharing deal with the Islamist militants. Haass proposes a "decentralization," giving U.S. aid to local leaders who agree to fight al-Qaida but abandoning the effort to build a strong central government. Gelb makes a similar proposal, including a two-year troop drawdown from the current 100,000 to about 15,000.

None of these new ideas is obviously right, of course, and none of them has won the debate yet. There are still plenty of supporters for Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, which calls for training thousands of Afghan troops and holding off the Taliban until the troops are ready to take over.

But as Obama approaches a December review of his strategy in Afghanistan, the debate is noticeably opening up.