Audio Transcript:

KATY CLARK: Steve Coll of the New Yorker posed the question what if we fail in Afghanistan in a recent blog post. But he says first we have to actually define what failure means.

STEVE COLL: Part of the problem with this policy dilemma is that US security interests have been defined as located almost completely around al-Qaeda whereas the Taliban are also a factor in the war and maybe in Afghanistan the main factor. And so you have to decide what you think about the Taliban.

CLARK: Coll says that in his mind the primary goal of US policy in Afghanistan ought to be to prevent a second Taliban revolution there. That he says would make it very difficult for the US to achieve its objectives in this war. Coll says a second Taliban revolution would be disastrous.

COLL: We've seen this movie before. It unfolded during the 1990s. There was a long-running, low-grade civil war that never finished when 9/11 arrived. So we would go back to that war and I think we can forecast that the war would be more intense than it was because the international community is much more deeply involved in the region now than it was in the 1990s.

CLARK: Coll goes on to predict that if the Taliban were to regain control of major Afghan cities such as Kandahar or Kabul it would energize the Taliban in Pakistan. The net effect, he argues, could possibly be Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of Islamic extremists. There could be increased Islamist violence against India and an energized Taliban could strengthen al-Qaeda which in turn could lead to more terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. Samina Ahmed is Southeast Asia project director with the international crisis group. She's based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Ahmed agrees that a US loss in Afghanistan could have devastating consequences.

SAMINA AHMED: You are going to create a piece of real estate that will be exploited by every bad guy in the business. So it extends beyond just the regional actors to folks who have trans-national links.

CLARK: Perhaps so says Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich. But Bacevich is more skeptical about such forecasting. He says predictions generally miss the mark and he equates them to scaremongering.

ANDREW BACEVICH: The analysis assumes that were the Taliban to prevail in Afghanistan that countries affected by the Taliban's success would have no alternative but to somehow endure a whole host of negative consequences.

CLARK: Bacevich argues that even if the Taliban were to regain power in Afghanistan the United States would still have economic and political tools at hand among other things to suppress any threat they posed. Bacevich adds that it's simply wrong to think that action or inaction on the part of the United States determines any larger trajectory of events in the world.

BACEVICH: The world is a complex place. Whatever turns out to be the fate of Afghanistan will be determined by Afghans; will be determined by a variety of other players in the region. The notion that what we do or what we don't do is necessarily decisive is completely false.

CLARK: Steve Coll is the first to admit that what he writes is largely speculative. But he maintains it doesn't take much to connect these worrisome dots and he hopes policy makers in Washington are considering all possibilities as they weigh their next move in Afghanistan. For The World this is Katy Clark.