As the 2014 foreign troops’ drawdown deadline approaches closer, the Afghan endgame no longer appears ephemeral.

The US military, having spent more than $517 billion, sacrificing 3,258 foreign troops and incurring a loss of over 30,000 Afghans in an effort to secure Afghanistan, has little to show in terms of achievement. The major faux pas, like diverting resources from the Afghan theatre into Iraq, provided respite to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Resultantly, the US administration had to gradually downgrade its Afghan policy stipulation. Barack Obama’s pronouncement of “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda replaced George W. Bush’s vague “global war on terror”, but his infamous surge to support counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan ended in failure, like the disastrous COIN precedence in the Vietnam campaign that incurred enormous costs in lives and resources, achieving little.

President Obama continued changing horses in midstream: General David D. McKiernan gave way to Stanley McChrystal, whose sacking brought in David Petraeus. Obama’s star-studded team, which included Joe Biden, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Eikenberry, failed to click as the Afghanistan theatre’s incessant stream of body bags and continuous dumping of scarce financial resources into the Afghan quagmire caused major domestic furore.

The US State Department’s scheme of replacing Hamid Karzai as President in the 2009 elections with Dr Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat, former World Bank executive and author of “Fixing Failed States”, flopped. He was rejected by his countrymen, who perceived him as more American than Afghan.

Abdullah Abdullah, the Tajik, put up a good fight leading to a runoff, but withdrew in Karzai’s favour, fearing the second round would be neither free nor fair, leaving the US and the world to bear the consequences of a repeat term of the temperamental Karzai.

Obama’s new Afghan strategy of “escalate and exit” caused a major rethink and by late 2009, Gates manifested: “We don’t need to defeat the Taliban; we only need to degrade them. The ‘clear, hold, build and transfer’ concept, which was endeavoured with great pomp and publicity at Marja, was deemed by General McChrystal himself as a “bleeding ulcer” three months after the operation.

By the November 2010 Summit at Lisbon, all talk of “conditions-based” withdrawal had been relegated to just a withdrawal by 2014. John Brennan, the new CIA Director, in his earlier capacity as Chief Counterterrorism Advisor to Obama, has been advocating beyond 2014 drawdown, keeping just enough of an “enduring presence” in Afghanistan to assure that the “counterterrorism architecture” remained in place.

David Sanger in his book “Confront and Conceal” exposes the method in the madness of “enduring presence”, stating: “The American forces in Afghanistan had a role as a ‘break the glass’ emergency force if Pakistan and its (nuclear) arsenal, appeared to be coming apart at the seams” (p. 46).

At the 2011 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, the White House’s goals narrowed even further, organising a committee labelled “Afghan Good Enough”. Its path of reversal included a change of plan from “changing the way Afghanistan is wired” to “how to do as little wiring as possible.” “Pakistan Good Enough”, therefore, became inevitable.

Epoch 2014 will not only mark the drawdown, but also the next Afghan presidential election. The Taliban may become a part of the balloting, but are not likely to sweep them although Obama’s military surge failed to even degrade them. The military stalemate is perceived as a victory by the Taliban.

After fits and starts and false premises, since the reconciliation efforts are no longer from a position of strength, it became imperative to drop the preconditions making them end objectives. The changes in perception and slogans are reminiscing of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” slogans taught to the “sheep.”

The transition from “there are no good or bad Taliban; only good Taliban are dead Taliban” to “there are only irreconcilable or reconcilable Taliban”, and Joe Biden’s nadir declaring “the Taliban are not our enemy”, depicts the desperate policy adjustment.

Analysts recommend the US to tread carefully and patiently. Military operations must become subordinate to the political process. Besides negotiating with the Taliban, an intra-Afghan dialogue is essential to secure peace. Weaning away the Taliban leadership too rapidly towards reconciliation may isolate the Taliban rank and file, who may seek alternative leadership, thus the process has to be top-down. Donor fatigue will affect Afghanistan’s development projects and, more importantly, the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army.

Pakistan continues to have relevance in the peace process, but the US should avoid pushing it towards a direction the US itself will not take.

The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence & Diplomacy on PTV.