The late Richard Holbrooke's widow, Kati Marton, once recalled that by the summer of 2010 the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan had worked out how the United States might settle the Afghan war. "He said, ‘I think I’ve got it. I think I can see how all the pieces can fit together,'’" the National Journal quoted her as saying. "It looked like he was working a Rubik’s cube in his head.”
We will never know whether Holbrooke, who died in December 2010, would have been able to deliver on that vision. But we do know that U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan has drifted over the last few years to the point where domestic U.S. pressure is growing for a rapid exit. Or as former U.S. ambassador to Islamabad Cameron Munter said in an interview last month, it was one in which you might "win a few battles and lose the war".
And while we are seeing some fresh momentum now - from a renewed U.S. commitment to engage with Taliban insurgents, to improved relations between the United States and Pakistan, to structured negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan - it remains almost as hard as ever to see how it is all meant to fit together.
The U.S. domestic debate on Afghanistan continues to focus largely on the use of force, from how many U.S. soldiers should stay after most foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014 to the merits of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. But beyond what seems to be an unhelpfully narrow definition of containing al Qaeda, it rarely discusses what that use of force is for. Is the aim for Afghanistan to be just about stable enough to fend off civil war, convince insurgents to negotiate, while hoping (and hope is not a strategy) that Pakistan will steady itself despite deep-rooted militant and sectarian violence? Or do the earlier ambitions - still very much in play when Holbrooke was alive - of achieving a lasting peace deal stand?
Whatever happens, we know it is going to be muddled. Afghanistan faces in 2014 the triple transition of the security handover from foreign to Afghan forces, the political challenges of holding a presidential election; and the inevitable shrinkage of its economy. (And do add for good measure the time-consuming, logistical difficulties of pulling foreign troops and equipment out of Afghanistan.) But without a rough idea of where we are meant to be going, it will be hard to tell if we are muddling backwards or forwards.