One of the sharper military analysts I know has just returned from a tour of that sorrowful nation, which has been at war continuously since the Soviet army invaded it in late 1979.
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who retired from the U.S. Army with four stars and a chest full of combat medals, including two Distinguished Service Crosses, says we can't shoot our way out of Afghanistan, and the two or three or more American combat brigades proposed by the two putative nominees for president are irrelevant.
McCaffrey predicts that 2009 will be the year of decision as the Taliban and a greatly enhanced presence of ''foreign fighters'' try to sever roads and halt road construction to strangle and isolate the capital, Kabul, and attack NATO units that are hamstrung by restrictions and rules of engagement dictated by their home governments.
More ominously, the general says, we can expect a Taliban drive to erase Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in the wild frontier provinces of Pakistan that have provided sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders and fighters since Osama bin Laden escaped there in 2001.
The general says that despite the two presidential candidates' sound bites, a few more combat brigades from ''our rapidly unraveling Army'' won't make much difference in Afghanistan.
Military means, he writes, won't be enough to counter terror created by resurgent Taliban forces; we can't win with a war of attrition, and the economic and political support from the international community is inadequate.
''This is a struggle for the hearts of the people, and good governance, and the creation of Afghan security forces,'' McCaffrey writes. He says the main theater of war is in frontier regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the combatants are tribes, religious groups, criminals and drug lords.
It will take a quarter-century of nation-building, road- and bridge-building, the building of a better-trained and better-armed Afghan National Police and National Army and the eradication of a huge opium farming industry to achieve a good outcome in Afghanistan, McCaffrey wrote in his report to leaders at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
We can't afford to fail in Afghanistan, the general says, but he doesn't address the question of whether we can afford to succeed there, either.
McCaffrey writes that the situation in Afghanistan is dire, and is going to get a lot worse in the 24 months ahead. The country is in abject misery - 68 percent of the population has never known peace; average life expectancy is 44 years; maternal mortality is the second-highest in the world; terrorist violence and attacks are up 34 percent this year; 2.8 million Afghans are refugees in their own country; unemployment is 40 percent and rising; 41 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty; the only agricultural success story is a $4 billion opium crop producing a huge amount of heroin; and the government at province and district level is largely dysfunctional and corrupt.
The battle will only be won, McCaffrey says, when there's a real Afghan police presence in all of the country's 34 provinces and 398 districts, when the Afghan National Army is expanded from 80,000 troops today to 200,000 troops, when we deploy five U.S. combat engineer battalions with a brigade of Army Stryker forces for security to begin a five-year road-building program that also trains Afghan army engineer units and employs Afghan contractors and workers.
Without NATO, we're lost in Afghanistan, he writes. But NATO's level of commitment and engagement in Afghanistan is woefully inadequate.
As for neighboring Pakistan and bellicose American threats to cross the border and mount more attacks on insurgents there, McCaffrey says this would be a ''political disaster'' that would imperil any Pakistan support for our campaign and likely result in Pakistan's weak civilian government shutting off American supply routes into Afghanistan.
Our efforts in Afghanistan, inadequate though they may be, now cost $34 billion each year and clearly this would have to be substantially increased if the fixes McCaffrey prescribes are to be implemented.
As good as the American ground troops operating in Afghanistan are - many are on their third or fourth combat deployments there or in Iraq - McCaffrey says our military is under-resourced and too small for the national strategy we've been pursuing.
The general concludes his report by writing: ''This is a generational war to build an Afghan state and prevent the creation of a lawless, extremist region which will host and sustain enduring threats to the vital national security interests of the United States and our key allies.''
This ought to be a wake-up call for all Americans, and for John McCain and Barack Obama. Now there's a sound bite for them.