There is an old Afghan folk tale that portrays a foreigner balancing two connected trays attached to the handheld weighing device used in South Asian bazaars. The foreigner carefully loads one tray and then the other with frogs. Just as he puts the last few frogs on one tray and then the other, some frogs on the first tray hop off. As the foreigner returns those frogs to the tray, frogs on the second tray hop off or jump to the other tray. Before long, all the frogs are in motion, moving in one direction or the other, and the foreigner gives up.
Like the folk tale, the Afghanistan conundrum could not be simpler for all of its complexity: What can the U.S. do differently than other great powers did over the millennia to bring a profoundly ungovernable country to heel? Put somewhat differently, what can President Trump do to avoid a continuing and reliably deadly stalemate in a now 16-year old conflict -- by far the longest war in American history-- that shows no sign of ending?
Nothing, absolutely nothing.
But leave it to Trump to make a bad situation even worse. This is because the goal of any war is to win it, right? And outright victory -- which has eluded Alexander the Great, Mongols, Chinese, British and Russians -- is not possibly and everyone from Trump on down to the boots on the ground know that despite the president's inevitable claim in a televised address on Monday night that "in the end, we will win."
The war, which in its most crucial early phase was robbed of materiel and men in service of the neocon wet dream to bring democracy to Iraq, has taken 2,403 American lives and another 1,036 lives of coalition soldiers. Afghan casualty estimates are all over the place, but have passed 90,000 for soldiers, civilian and militants.
Trump said he would "not talk about numbers of troops," but senior military commanders have asked for several thousand more -- perhaps 4,000 or so -- to advise Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and step up U.S. airstrikes.
Speaking of hopping frogs, the new strategy includes pressuring Pakistan, long accused of harboring terrorists, to support U.S. goals.
Trump’s decision guarantees failure because it is a middle path that happens to override the two main foreign policy themes he pushed as a candidate: To stay out of expensive overseas quagmires, and to decisively win any conflict worth entering, and ignores his frequent calls for Obama to withdraw all U.S. troops.
In bowing to his generals -- or at least that is the narrative being pushed by the Washington media -- Trump apparently has rejected the dangerous idea pushed by recently departed chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and Blackwater founder Erik Prince to send in an army of private mercenaries.
For that, at least, we can be thankful.