One of the lessons of Empire is that, for a time, Great Power intervention can perform a pacifying role, dampen down regional security dilemmas and stabilise otherwise unruly regions but that - unless underlying tensions are resolved - old enmities quickly resurface once the intervening power retreats. The historical record is littered with examples. The rise of a particularly grizzly form of ethno-nationalism in the Balkans after the retreat of Soviet power is only the most recent, and the pattern may be about to repeat itself in Afghanistan. For all the talk about al-Qaeda, a stable and enduring peace can only emerge once Afghanistan is closed down as a theatre of strategic competition between India and Pakistan. And this can only be achieved when the issues that motivate and sustain that competition are resolved.

The more one learns of Pakistan, the stronger the conviction that, like the British before them, in the tribal areas of that troubled country the Americans are fast approaching the limits of their power. The British struggled for three quarters of a century to subdue the tribes of the North West Frontier without any great success, finally settling on a policy of non-interference. Islamabad has decided on a similar policy. The reasons are both historical and pragmatic. The three provinces that make up the outer rim originally federated with the Punjab on the understanding that they would enjoy a large measure of autonomy and in the ensuing half-century, every attempt by the centre to extend its control over the periphery has met with fierce and oftentimes bloody resistance. The result is that something of an uneasy standoff has developed with a delicate constitutional balance allowing for substantial self-government in the provinces.

Except at the most general level, thinking strategically about the Greater Middle East is a thankless task. On the basics, everyone is agreed. The challenge is a millennial one - how to transition the Middle East out of its ruinous security competition, away from the old antagonisms and towards some version, however minimal, of the Kantian peace. Agreement at this level of abstraction is not difficult. The problems emerge when you attempt to translate this into a working policy. The problem is that the elements for such a peace are simply not in place. Next to a patchwork of small, independent sheikdoms there are the two giants - Iran and Iraq – hostile, predatory, seething with resentment and fortified by a historical sense of injustice. Massively more powerful, the two great Leviathans eye the enormous oil wealth of the tiny Gulf states with a mixture of envy and avarice. This is no recipe for a stable and enduring equilibrium. In any test of strength the Gulf states would quickly be overrun by their larger, more powerful neighbours.

A familiar debate surfaced on the pages of Foreign Policy Magazine this week - the ongoing one between neoconservatism and its critics. The subject of controversy is Paul Wolfowitz’s latest intervention. In it, Wolfowitz lays out the basis of his position, draws a sharp contrast between his outlook and that of self-styled 'realists', and considers whether the new administration can in any meaningful sense be called realist. Using a distinction between realism as foreign policy doctrine and a more flexible approach to policy based on the consideration of consequences, he concludes that Obama is a pragmatist, rather than any kind of realist.  Four foreign policy specialists - Steve Clemons, Stephen M. Walt, Daniel D. Drezner and David J. Rothkopf - are then invited to respond. The exchange is a useful primer for anybody interested in the byzantine complexities of the American foreign policy debate, throwing into sharp relief some of its most enduring faultlines, and it is worth reading in full. Of all the respondents, for me Steve Clemons makes the killer distinction - which effectively puts him on the same side of the argument as Wolfowitz - between what he calls the 'pure' realism of John Mearsheimer and his followers on the one hand, and 'policy realists' on the other. That is, between mainstream realists in the foreign policy establishment and their ideological counterparts in the academy. Daniel D. Drezner makes the point by way of a simple stylistic device, reserving the lower case ‘r’ for the pragmatic, policy oriented strain of realism and the upper case ‘R’ for the grand theory.

US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke’s breezy suggestion that we will know what success in Afghanistan is “when we see it” caused something of a stir in the blogsopshere today. The remarks were made at a Centre for American Progress (CFAP) event in Washington yesterday in response to a question from the floor. The event was conceived as an opportunity for Ambassador Holbrooke and his Interagency Team to settle the nerves of a sceptical foreign policy community by laying out the principles underlying their new ‘whole of government’ approach. In view of what has unfolded, the effort now looks to have been largely counterproductive. To be fair to Holbrooke, America was already turning sour on the mission in Afghanistan. The debate has become increasingly fractious over the last month, with the most persistent questions centring upon the need for an exit strategy. And that mood was widely reflected in the questions from the floor. Rather than allay people’s fears, however, his comments appear to have compounded them, with commentators seizing on the remark as further evidence that the policy is in trouble. Mark Lynch, Robert and RenĂ©e Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University Stephen M. Walt and Katherine Tiedemann over at foreignpolicy.com and Ian Leslie at the excellent Marbury blog between them pretty much capture the mood, each suggesting that the mission lacks strategic focus and warning of the danger of mission creep, with Walt and Lynch in particular striking an increasingly sceptical note.

Regular readers of this site will know that the way the argument for our continued engagement in Afghanistan is framed is something of an obsession of mine. The assumption that we are incapable of grasping strategic concepts except through the prism of ethics is one of the most frustrating aspects of the whole debate. So you can imagine my response when I read the latest offering from Bronwen Maddox in The Times this morning.  Chief Foreign Commentator of The Times is a position of considerable influence. Maddox has access to privileged information and an extensive network of contacts. Her position affords her considerable opportunity to shape the debate. It also carries with it a responsibility to ensure that readers are reliably informed about major aspects of policy. That is why this morning’s piece was so disappointing. Instead of setting out the main national interest arguments in support of the mission, she begins with a perfunctory nod to what she calls the 'new realism' before arguing that we should place women's rights at the centre of our approach.

Swiss Bob over at the excellent Daily Politics references an important piece in the Wall Street Journal today by author and former US Marine Bing West. The article is a timely corrective to the corrosive cynicism on display in much of the British press, a spirited defence of a vital mission and the perfect antidote to the constant drumbeat of despair from writers like Simon Jenkins.

It deserves to be read widely, not least by those determined naysayers on the Op-Ed pages for whom the whole thing was a grisly error from the start and for whom it remains the most monstrous and murderous extravagance. I urge you to read it in full.

Robert Fox, Matthew Paris, Simon Jenkins, the Heresiarch - four writers in various states of despair about the prospects for our mission in Afghanistan. Simon Jenkins and Robert Fox are long time sceptics. Matthew Paris and the Heresiarch - along with a growing majority of the public, it seems - are more recent converts. This is worrying, because it suggests that those of us in favour of continued engagement in Afghanistan are losing the argument. Much of the new mood is bound up with the recent spike in casualties, but alongside it is a vein of criticism that addresses fundamental issues of strategy. If this is not dealt with, those numbers could very well harden.  The argument is that our effort there lacks strategic focus. This is odd because of all the criticisms one can make of this mission - and there are many - it seems to me that this is the one with least force. Only some years ago, at the outset of the mission, was it fair to say that our effort there suffered for the want of a coherent strategy. It has not really been true for some time, and so the right time to make the argument was then, not now. That we are beginning to question the logic and coherence of the overarching concept at the very moment the elements needed for a focused strategic effort are finally put in place is just one of the many ironies that swirl around this debate .

After a decade of foreign policy activism, the first task for the incoming Tory government is to design a diplomacy that acknowledges limits. At the same time it must continue to advance British interests. This is a difficult balance to strike and, with falling budgets, one that will require a finely calibrated sense of the difference between interests that are vital and those that are merely peripheral. Our current strategic posture is unsustainable. This much everyone agrees upon. And so the most pressing need is for clear strategic judgements about where to put Britain’s diminished resources to achieve maximum advantage. When formulating these judgements, the trick is to avoid compromising morally by falling back on a cynical realpolitik, while at the same time avoiding the kind of moral absolutes that lead to strategic overstretch - to retain an expansive definition of Britain’s interests while at the same time acknowledging the very real limits and pressure upon future British capabilities.