WASHINGTON // Richard Holbrooke has a long memory, and as Nato officials meeting in Lisbon today discuss the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the veteran US diplomat recalled with a note of caution an earlier military pullout that had calamitous consequences.
More than two decades ago, a beaten and bloodied Soviet Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving a power vacuum that was soon filled with civil war and Islamist militancy.
"What happened in 1989 was a straight line to 9/11, and from 9/11 to where we are today," Mr Holbrooke, now the US special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said recently in Islamabad. "It is the most extraordinary story of unintended consequences I think in American foreign policy history."
US and Nato leaders hope to avoid the pitfalls of 1989 by mimicking the surge and transition strategy that they employed in Iraq. The US has already tripled its forces in Afghanistan under Barack Obama, the US president, and is set to begin scaling back its forces in July 2011.
"Iraq is a pretty decent blueprint for how to transition in Afghanistan," an anonymous US official told The New York Times this week. "But the key will be constructing an Afghan force that is truly capable of taking the lead."
US officials have set goals for the Afghan police and army to grow from 260,000 to 306,000 by next October, and to 350,000 by 2013. But an increase in numbers will have to be matched by proper training, which poses a long list of challenges, not the least of which is a history of trainees leaving ranks, and, in some cases, joining Taliban forces to fight their former trainers.
Mr Obama's surge-and-withdrawal plan has drawn sharp criticism from conservative political leaders in the US, who see him pandering to his liberal constituency.
He is also under fire from liberals who have soured on America's involvement in Afghanistan and see next July's drawdown as too little too late.
The rise in violence in Afghanistan this year, the worst since US-led coalition forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, has led to dwindling public support for the war.
In fact, the most important legacy of the war may be the reluctance of Nato to fight faraway again.
Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, predicted recently that Nato "may never again intervene outside Europe".
"Win or lose [in Afghanistan], success or no success, it's going to be virtually impossible to get this kind of coalition together in the future."