The problem, however, is that the stakes are too high to wait it out. Afghanistan’s stability hangs in the balance, and by the thinnest of threads. The Taliban’s clout now extends far beyond their traditional bastions in the south and east — where they are retaking territory — and into the country’s northern reaches. Alarmingly, Afghan forces are now effecting what Kabul describes as “strategic retreats” from areas of Taliban strength or outright control. Reports abound of Afghan troops abandoning their bases, and of undisciplined militias unable or unwilling to fulfil the security responsibilities that Kabul has outsourced to them. The Taliban are not about to take Kabul, but their writ extends to areas far beyond it. For the White House, the sole advantage of waiting reconciliation out is that it can run out the clock and wait for the next administration to deal with the mess. There’s little the United States can do in Afghanistan at this point to improve the situation on the ground in a major way. That’s because any policy alternatives to political reconciliation are either insufficient or unrealistic. Major troop level increases or the return of large numbers of ground troops in a combat role are off-the-table options — at least until after the next presidential election. At any rate, more than 100,000 foreign troops failed to stabilise the country in previous years. Additionally, at the height of the war, one in five NATO troops were based in a single province, Helmand, and yet today the Taliban have retaken significant swaths of the region. Stepped-up training and advising for Afghan forces, or drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network targets, would be helpful but far from a game-changer. Some have also suggested that Washington cut all military aid to Pakistan to undercut its ability to provide material support to the Taliban and Haqqani network. However, even those that support such a move would acknowledge that it is unlikely given the realities of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship. Broadly speaking, maintaining residual U.S. forces in Afghanistan is essential because they provide psychological boosts to Afghan forces and help plug war-fighting capacity gaps. Still, residual troops are no silver bullet for escalating instability. Ultimately, a successful Plan B — one that weakens the insurgency in a meaningful way — will require Afghanistan and its neighbours to step up in a big way. Unfortunately, however, the parameters of such a policy have long been proposed — and little progress has been made. Kabul must take major steps to strengthen an economy that has suffered from the withdrawal of foreign forces and is further threatened thanks to international donor fatigue. It must also do more to combat corruption. A weak economy and widespread graft boost recruitment to the insurgency — particularly so long as the Afghan government fails to convince impoverished and aggrieved potential recruits that it is a better alternative to the Taliban. Kabul also must somehow find additional ways (beyond the support it already receives from foreign troops) to strengthen its security forces — a hopelessly tall order given the range of problems that afflict them. The recent acquisition of four Russia-made attack helicopters from India — a transaction I analyzed for War on the Rocks in December — is an encouraging step forward, yet does little to address more fundamental challenges such as illiteracy and rampant desertions within the Afghan forces. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran — both plagued by epidemics of heroin sourced from Afghanistan that provides major financial windfalls to the Taliban — should help Kabul implement stronger anti-narcotics measures. Security permitting, gas-rich Central Asian states should propose small pipeline projects to enhance Afghan energy security, which would strengthen the country’s economy. China should ensure that its extractive projects in Afghanistan bring real benefits to local communities. India should consider further arms sales to Afghanistan, while weighing the very real risk of provoking Pakistan’s ire. Again, these measures, as beneficial as they could be, have been proposed, with little actual progress, time and time again. Sadly, there’s little reason to think they’ll be any more successful in the coming months — and especially with a smaller foreign troop presence and the threat of a smaller foreign aid presence. As for Pakistan, its policies have enabled a raft of terrorist groups to flourish on its soil. Many of these groups — particularly the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba — have partnered operationally with the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, and enjoy the capacity to keep doing so. Meanwhile, even as Afghan Taliban fighters opt for new sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network remains ensconced in Pakistan — from the Kurram tribal agency to, possibly, the Islamabad area, where one Haqqani leader was shot dead in 2013. So long as militancy-friendly realities in Pakistan endure, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is unlikely to die. In effect, there are no good options for the United States in Afghanistan — all possible Plan Bs are as problematic as Plan A. And sadly, it is the Afghan people who will suffer the most. Many of them, in fact, are already so desperate that they are leaving the country. Afghanistan’s ever-worsening security situation has fuelled a fresh and ferocious human exodus. In recent months, the country has issued an average of 2,000 passports daily — a threefold increase from previous months. With Iran and Pakistan — historically the two most common destinations for Afghan refugees — no longer as accommodating, Afghans are now pouring in to Europe. Last year, Afghans comprised 21 percent of refugee sea arrivals in Europe (out of more than 500,000 overall), and more than 30,000 have already arrived in Greece this year. This is a daunting challenge that the United States can actually help tackle in a meaningful way. Washington — and other NATO partners with troops in Afghanistan — should ensure that Afghans are included in European Union quotas that distribute refugees among member states. Washington should also tear away the red tape that has kept several thousand Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and military in Afghanistan from receiving special visas to enter America. The United States can’t save Afghanistan, but it can better support those who have fled it. This would be a Plan B that is undoubtedly modest, but also practical and actionable — and therefore well-worth pursuing. (Concluded) (A version of this article appeared in print in War on the Rocks on March 10, 2016) The writer is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.