This is a long article but well worth the time to read. Luke Mogelson, in The Scariest Little Corner of the World, paints a graphic picture of the complexity of Afghanistan re relationships among its ethnically diverse population and with Iran. He describes the multitude of issues effecting life in this remote part of the world, from religious fanaticism to illicit trades in weapons, drugs, and refugees. Warlordism, shifting alliances, water-wars, economic interests...they're all here and further complicate the future of Afghanistan.
In spite of all that's been written about 'cultural awareness' and the massive sums of money and time spent by the military in trying to equip our forces to understand and operate effectively in this part of the world, we continue to underestimate the magnitude of the challenge to entice cultures still firmly rooted in the 9th Century to join the 21st...or even the 20th, or perhaps just the 19th.
Should we write-off this region given the cost in people and treasure we have borne over the past decade or so? No, not entirely. The U.S. still has security interests linked to the major actors in the area. Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability, its support of various groups at war with Israel and the West, and Pakistan's relative instability are all concerns for the U.S. Better to be present in the region if only to be able to collect intelligence and maintain a 'feel' for the region (something that cannot be done from Washington DC) than to be absent and find ourselves continually surprised by events that inevitably cost more to respond to than would otherwise be the case if we had advance warning or were able to shape events even a bit. Does this mean a continued presence of 65,000 troops and billions of dollars? Certainly not. But we have a tendency to swing from one extreme to another in our policies and I think we should guard against the urge to withdraw from the area entirely.
It would be most helpful, of course, if our approach to engaging a given region actually accounted for the nature of the region rather than presuming all peoples everywhere eagerly desire to make themselves 'little Americas'.