The Afghan surge only seems to make sense if it's seen as an attempt to buy some political cover while staging a disguised withdrawal that can be spun as a victory. But that's also a fantasy. There are too many powerful interests that benefit from the Forever War. The time to stand up to them was now, when Obama still has some public support -- not 18 months from now, when his popularity is likely to have suffered the same fate as most wartime presidents.
It's not the first time the U.S. has escalated a war in pursuit of illusory goals based on a profound lack of understanding of the local culture. The biggest fantasy of all is to see Afghanistan as a "country" in the sense that words like "central government" and "government security forces" have any sort of meaning we recognize. The corrupt Karzai government we installed in power and continue backing after his fraudulent "reelection" has virtually no power outside Kabul.
The Afghans are a fiercely independent people living in different ethnic regions with no tradition of strong central government. Loyalties are to clan and tribal leaders, not a central government, and we're not about to change that in 18 months. (Their last real central government was the one backed by the Soviets, which lasted only as long as it took for opposing tribal groups to get organized and overthrow it.)
Juan Cole's excellent, knowledgeable analysis in today's Salon is especially good on the different ethnic loyalties and the role they play, and how the situation in Afghanistan is completely different from the one in Iraq, which is why the surge in Iraq makes such a poor model for the one in Afghanistan.
As Cole point out, the Afghan government is dominated by Tajiks, while Afhanistan's largest tribal group are the Pashtun (also a minority, but one with a plurality of the population). The Pashtun definitely don't like being ruled by Tajiks, so backing the Karzai government puts us on the wrong side for much of the population.
Guess who else backed the Tajiks? Yes, Cole notes -- the Soviets.
The implication is that often, when we speak of Afghanistan National Army troops patrolling Pashtun villages alongside U.S. or other NATO forces, we may well be speaking of Tajik troops doing so. Many Pashtun clansmen are fiercely proud and independent, and would be humiliated by having Tajik soldiers lord it over them. (In Afghanistan, Pashtuns often unfairly depict Tajiks as soft, urban and effeminate.) The only thing worse than Tajik dominance would be what the Tajiks brought along with them -- Western Christian soldiers outfitted like astronauts. Ironically, the Tajik dominance of the old 1980s communist government of Afghanistan, and their alliance with Russian troops, were among the reasons that impelled the Pashtuns to mount a Muslim insurgency in the first place.The Soviet government's insistence on using force to support the rule of a Tajik-dominated government eventually brought down the Soviet empire. Now we seem to be making the same mistake, in more ways than one.