Arriving in Kabul the first thing that hits you is the aura and aroma of dust. It covers the capital city in a hazy sheen and, more to the point, in a distinct and powerful odor. Considering that Kabul reportedly has one of the highest percentages of atmospheric fecal matter in the world it's the sort of smell that, at least initially, strikes you in the face.

It offers a useful preview of the more powerful smack of gloom that seems so evident in Afghanistan today. Among the many local and international journalists, NGO officials, analysts, and political leaders that I spoke to during a recent visit to Afghanistan, there was a pervasive sense of fatalism about the country’s future and the U.S. war effort (the lone exception to this consensus being the ever-optimistic U.S. military). Worse, none of those I talked with seem to know what to do about it.

The dire security situation colors everything. When I mentioned to one NGO official that things in the country's south and east had worsened, he quickly corrected me: "Security is bad everywhere." And it's true. Roads that were safe a year or even six months ago are now considered too dangerous to travel. The south and east—the heart of the Taliban insurgency—has become a complete no-go zone. And even once relatively secure northern provinces like Kunduz, Nangarhar, Takhar, and parts of Badakhshan are reaching their own tipping points—pushed by insurgents and straightforward banditry.

The northern province of Balkh, home to the provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif, (where I worked as an election monitor during recent legislative elections) generally has been considered one of the country’s safest. But even in Balkh there were persistent reports of Taliban activity and districts now considered off-limits. Just recently, a suicide attack was reported on the road between Mazar and Balkh, killing one person and injuring more than two dozen. Not so long ago, such an assault would have been unimaginable.

Compounding the security dilemma is the country's governance gap. When I asked one international journalist whether any Afghans had confidence in President Hamid Karzai, he responded with derision. "Would you?” For many Afghans the central government exists as an abstraction. And, yet because responsibility for so many basic public functions rests with officials in Kabul, Afghans tend to blame many of the country’s problems on the Karzai government.

This, combined with the government's unquenchable corruption and general incompetence, seem to be pushing more and more Afghans into the Taliban column. "Afghans have an excellent ability to understand which way the political winds are blowing," one analyst said to me. Most ominously, the insurgency, which to date has been mostly Pashtun-dominated, has metastasized, expanding into non-Pashtun areas whose inhabitants have all but given up on the Karzai government.

As to Karzai himself, his thin grip on power, as well as his willingness to countenance negotiations with the Taliban, has had a cascading effect. Tajik and Uzbek militias, fearful of being cut out of power, have been re-arming in preparation for the possibility of a return to full-scale civil war. In Kabul and elsewhere the apprehension feels more elemental: A negotiated political settlement or, worse, a Taliban takeover of the country could mean that slow progress made on women's rights and other advances will simply be erased. While a political solution almost certainly offers the only way out of the Taliban insurgency, all of this suggests that mollifying his own domestic constituencies will be no easy accomplishment for Karzai.

In any case, no one I spoke with seems able to imagine a way of reversing the country's downward spiral. "Even if we knew what to do, the U.S. and Karzai wouldn't do it," bemoaned one analyst. Afghans talked of the need for greater funding for infrastructure and education; others spoke about decentralizing government functions and delegating more power to the provinces. But it is hard to imagine how America can prod President Karzai to accept such a plan.

Others derisively attacked the recent proposal, floated in the United States by former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, to cede control of the Pashtun-dominated south and east to the Taliban. "Afghans will never go along with that," said several people, yet at the same time many agree that the while the United States cannot just leave the south and east . . . they can't really stay either. At a time when least-worst scenarios need to be considered, few seemed to be willing to entertain such ideas.

There is, however, one notable outlier to this deep pessimism. To hear it from U.S. military spokespersons, one would think that corners are being turned, lights are being glimpsed at the end of the tunnel, the U.S. and NATO are making steady progress against the Talban and important advances are being made. Along these lines, on the day after last month’s legislative elections, General David Petraeus released a statement saying that the "[p]eople of Afghanistan sent a powerful message. The voice of Afghanistan’s future does not belong to violent extremists and terror networks."

But that message hardly jibed with the frequent reports of intimidation (by both Taliban and rival candidates), tales of voters being paid not to go to the polls, ballot stuffing and other irregularities at voting stations and, above all, the deep apathy of ordinary Afghans reflected in paltry turnout numbers.  

Petraeus may be right that Afghanistan’s future doesn't belong to violent extremists. But the votes cast by Afghans last month hardly disprove this. In reality, the current political system, for which they were casting their ballots, represents entrenched interests, enhances ethnic and tribal identification at the expense of larger national goals, and is strengthening the hands of local warlords and powerbrokers.

Given all this, it seems clear that President Obama and General Petraeus ought to devise an alternative strategy for Afghanistan centered less on 'winning' and more on doing everything possible to stabilize Afghanistan, preparing for a turnover of power to Afghan security forces and preventing a full national meltdown, before an eventual and certain U.S. withdrawal. And yet from every indication the sheer bleakness of the situation isn’t reflected at all in U.S. military operations and strategy.

Two days after the election I sat down with an Afghan TV journalist who said that while it was moving to see Afghans risking their lives to vote, the sight ought not to conceal the worsening insecurity and despair that defines his country nearly nine years after the Americans first arrived.

In an apt description of Afghanistan's predicament and the shrinking set of options facing U.S. policymakers, he said to me, "Afghanistan is a very dark house with only a single flickering candle lighting the inside."

Michael A. Cohen is Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He blogs on Afghanistan at www.democracyarsenal.org.

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