The choice in Afghanistan is not a simple one of Karzai versus the Taliban. It's a more complicated calculus between effective state rule versus state failure.
It still comes down to nation-building in Afghanistan
Amid the international debate over the future of Afghanistan, a false binary has taken hold. Afghanistan is torn, we are told, between two choices: a corrupt, ineffective, increasingly unpopular government of President Hamid Karzai or the prospect of the return of the Taliban and their twisted and violent vision of Islam and a manifestly disastrous ruling history. In this stark choice, Mr Karzai is the usual winner.
But the choice in Afghanistan is more complex than that. Despite their ambitions, the Taliban have little prospect of returning to the power they once had. They can certainly be an insurgent thorn in the side of the Mr Karzai or future governments, and inflict damage on the population, even controlling some regions, but a return to Taliban rule is highly unlikely given the new power dynamics in Afghanistan.
For all of the justifiable criticism of the 300,000-plus Afghan security forces, their mere existence represents a stark contrast to the early 1990s when no such force existed to counteract the Taliban rise. Come what may, there is no power vacuum in Afghanistan that the Taliban could easily fill, as they did nearly two decades ago. The decimated Taliban leadership are battered by years of losses and looking to do deals, and the younger militants are undisciplined, capable of spasmodic violence, but poorly organised.
Thus, the choice in Afghanistan is not a simple Karzai versus the Taliban. It's a more complicated one between effective state rule versus state failure. This will be the defining reality of the next decade and will determine the future of Afghanistan, a land where tragedy seems embedded in the quiet brown mountains dotting the stark landscape.
Foreign actors will play a large role in this reality - as they have over the past four decades in this tormented country. Pity the nation whose fate lies in the hands of others, but for Afghanistan, this is an essential fact of life.
Thus, the Afghan political elite were alarmed by a recent statement made by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta suggesting that US forces are likely to withdraw from combat operations by the middle of next year - more than a year ahead of the Nato timetable agreed in Lisbon in 2010. Mr Panetta's remarks, made in Brussels before a Nato defence ministers meeting, also sent US allies scrambling for clarification.
US President Barack Obama once famously called the war in Afghanistan "the good war". It was an effort to draw a contrast to what he viewed as the unnecessary war in Iraq. To back his words, he announced a troop surge in late 2009 that sent an extra 30,000 American soldiers into the country to launch a counter-insurgency campaign aimed at rooting out Taliban fighters.
That Afghan "surge" has helped to stabilise large parts of southern Afghanistan once wracked by Taliban-led violence, though trouble has moved to the east and north of the country where the Taliban has grown in influence. But fears of a Taliban takeover of the country are largely overblown. Fears of state failure or, more likely, prolonged periods of state ineffectiveness leading to increased poverty, crime, and other ills, are not.
The most vital piece of the puzzle for Afghanistan's future will be security. A secure Afghanistan will be able to muddle through its myriad economic and political problems even in the absence of US or Nato forces, but an insecure Afghanistan has the potential to be become an unstable narcostate driven by poppy cultivation and marred by explosive ethnic and regional fault lines.
Writing in the summer of 2011, the International Crisis Group put it starkly: "There is no possibility that the Afghan security forces will stabilise the country in the next three years unless there is a significant rethink of international strategies, nor will the Afghan state be able to provide basic services to its citizens by 2015."
This view is shared by many on-the-ground analysts. Indeed, an Afghan commander told the Washington Post that Mr Panetta's timeline would leave the country vulnerable. "Are we ready to take over? In some places, yes," the commander was quoted as saying, "but in others we aren't now, and we won't be in a year."
There are currently 90,000 US troops in Afghanistan, comprising 70 per cent of the Nato contingent. An early withdrawal would create pockets of regional and provincial state failures that spawn criminal networks and ethnic or tribal unrest - and benefit the Taliban.
Of course, US and Nato troops cannot stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, and deadlines can be useful to a government that is far too reliant on foreign aid and foreign forces. But western and major powers have both a moral responsibility and strategic stake in a stable Afghanistan that will provide its people with economic prospects and hope for a better future.
The possibility of peace talks between Mr Karzai and the Taliban leadership represent a glimmer of hope, but the deep-seated mistrust on both sides bodes ill for their prospects.
Afghan officials who wonder why Mr Panetta would suggest an early withdrawal might look to the US political calendar. The American public has grown weary of its wars in South Asia and the Middle East. Mr Obama earned a boost in ratings by bringing US troops home from Iraq, and he faces an election in November 2012.
In the end, it seems that "the good war" might not be good for campaign season.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior adviser at Oxford Analytica