How can anyone be a reporter?

How can you condense a vast, rich amount of material? And if you’re a sulky porcupine bristling with sharp opinions, how could you ever pretend to be objective?

So beware dear reader: Here is my take-home on this year’s amazing Camden Conference.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist with a long and deep relationship to the region, was an excellent choice to open this year’s conference, titled “Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — Crossroads of Conflict.” Rashid’s talk painted Pakistan, with its failed civil government, its willingness to harbor and export terrorism, and its stalled dispute with India, as the central player in the conflict.

For the first 15 minutes, I madly scribbled notes. Soon, though, overcome with confusion and sadness at the intricacy of the puzzle, I put down my pen. I would never understand it later. I had come to the conference — a nobody among attendees with pedigrees — with a simple, but strong political bias: let’s get the heck out of this region, and let each country settle in to its own destiny without interference, even if this involves a generation-long period of chaos. Rashid’s talk quickly trumped my naive isolationism.

We can’t just walk away from this. Too many hands are on nuclear buttons, for one thing.

It was a relief when the fast-paced talk shifted into a question period. Alas, this added little light. It seemed such a mire, such a stalemate. I went home wondering if I could endure until Sunday noon.

Saturday dawned sunny, inviting a play day outside, but I dutifully headed into the Camden Opera House’s dark cave. If Rashid’s evening talk was a presentation of  impossible puzzle pieces, the three morning speakers filled in vital details of what those puzzle pieces looked like.

Whitney Azoy, from his long and loving years in Afghanistan, gave us a vision of an Afghanistan that I, for one, had never glimpsed: a place where proud regionalism, which we pejoratively call tribalism or warlordism, is the norm. These language-based entities cooly unite to throw off outside interference, and to that limited extent might be called a nation, but their true loyalty has never gone to a central government. In contrast to Iraq, only obscene amounts of continuous financial and military pressure from foreign parties (read: America or the USSR) has ever fashioned even a puppet-like central government out of the historical Afghani pluralism. Whew! You want the illusion of a centralized Afghanistan? You gotta stick around and keep paying for it.

Samina Quraeshi was one of only two female speakers, and though her talk had the mind-numbing quality of a prewritten speech, she added another vital insight: a revitalized Afghan nationalism might not be the best goal here. Nations frequently arrive complete with monolithic pretensions that suppress culture, art and diversity. The power of a nation ought to be the personal power and robustness of its people. This robustness requires each of us to maintain multiple, strong, even conflicting identities.  Quraeshi is a Pakistani, an Urdu speaker, an artist, a scholar, a mother, an American citizen. These identities protect us against manipulation and extremism. The first job of terrorism is to remove such personal identities, so that its inductees become blank slates, willing tools without a personal stake, to carry out acts we would sensibly reject.

The third puzzle piece was India, presented by Teresita Schaffer. Here, we began to glimpse how the 70-year cold war between India and Pakistan over the correct partition of Kashmir vastly complicates and preempts any long-term stability of the region. As long as this bellicose distrust continues, Afghanistan will be a political football and the region will be its playing field. Resolution must come without direct U.S. orchestration, but it is critical for us to lean on these two nations in whatever way might be effective.

As I came back after lunch, I steeled myself, regretting  that my buddies were out iceboating. The prospect of three government drones spouting government-speak about U.S. policies and objectives was grim. Yet this was another part of the puzzle to be resolved, and, sure enough, the planners of this conference had not disappointed us.

Larry Goodson first presented the PowerPoint list of political objectives and resulting strategies in all its stale, media- tested boredom. I know my political slip is showing, but I felt as if I were looking at a wishful house of cards. And the central flaw, acknowledged even by the speaker, was all too evident: As long as we are working through a corrupt, unpopular central government, failure is the only guarantee. Afghanistan will go round and round. Money will hemorrhage. Nothing will change.

Then Paul Pillar took the stage and something amazing happened. In that dim room, a light bulb flashed on. As he began speaking, I slowly realized that we were finally coming down from the fantasy stratosphere to the bedrock of reality. Pillar pulled the lynchpin from all our half-baked thinking: The Afghani Taliban, long heralded by the media as our arch enemy, now controlling 80 percent of Afghan territory, has nothing to do with international terrorism. They once hosted Bin Laden, who with his cronies has now decamped to Pakistan, but they have no international objectives at all. They are an assembly of local, barely even national, bands. This Taliban has no incentive to resume harboring international terrorism. Furthermore, the importance of a central physical command post for terrorism is vastly overrated. The grunt work of terrorism is carried on in the West, and the command itself has many choices for its locale.

Whew! We’ve been fighting a phony war. Now, the Taliban is no barn dance. When their control is complete and they face the challenge of ruling, they will almost surely be cruel and incompetent, much as they were prior to our arrival. Furthermore, as onlookers we might regret the coming chaos in Afghanistan, but in terms of our national interest — our concern for our own safety and well-being — the sad drama in this distant backwater means little.

We ended the day with a question period, and one particular question comes quickly to my memory. The person from the audience had recently been talking with his plumber (not named Joe!) who said simply: “We as a nation face a number of vast, almost Depression-like, crises. Trying to solve these, our debt is soaring. In this context, the Afghan price tag simply cannot be paid.”

My mind flashed back to the last years of the Roman Empire. The generals, perhaps, were gallivanting about, trying to hold an over-extended empire together, and at the center, Rome itself, was crumbling.

The afternoon had been immensely clarifying. I felt a burden had been lifted. Afghanistan was not a necessary war. The events of that far-off land no longer mattered a fig to an American future. Yet I went to bed that night disquieted. Somehow, the road ahead was still not clear. Today’s answer was still, perhaps, too simple.

I wondered if  tomorrow’s wrap-up could take me to a deeper answer.

The morning began with a change of mode: visual and anecdotal contact with Afghanistan itself. Mr. Moulakis, fresh from two years in Kabul, showed us slides and we began to glimpse just how complex it is to offer help and stability to this persistently poor country. Afghanistan is rated 158th in the 160 countries surveyed on quality of life. These people are poorer than poor, and their self-reliant farming lifestyle has been brought to a halt — except for poppy growing — by years of war and a series of short-sighted and ultimately crippling handouts. Any real change is not likely to come from quick-fix inputs of western thinking, but rather slowly, personally, working through local custom. Yet these projects too are complicated: If you come in with a worthy project,  needing skilled local people, paying them well, you will immediately siphon scarce talent from any preexisting project by the weak central government.

Finally, Nick Burns, the conference moderator, closed with a wrap-up speech. He carefully tried to sketch a middle ground, an engaged stance for the United States that considered a wider “human interest” more than a narrow “national interest.” And though he seemed to fall back easily into facile optimism and government-speak — after all he’s long been an ambassador — he was trying to open space for the complex and necessary next steps.

We ended with an hour and a half question period with all the conference speakers, and this gave me a tentative vision of how a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, rather than a military victory, might proceed. A student from the balcony, who grew up under the Taliban in Afghanistan, talked briefly about the suffering and endurance of those years. For me, it was an understated but powerful caution. Though we may not be bargaining from strength, we must somehow ensure that their return to official power is more humane. Yet how to do that with a warier movement, without any threat of an opposing U.S. military presence?

Look at the context: The Taliban are good guerrillas but lousy governors. They are fractious non-compromisers to a fault. Any imagining of a shared-power sequel, one which doesn’t roll back the human-rights gains of the last decade, seems like pie in the sky.

I know this article has gone far beyond your attention span. But since you didn’t pony up $225 for the conference, you have a bit of a bargain, getting this opinionated summary for the price of a newspaper. Like the Pop-Tech conference last fall,  the Camden 
Conference is an under-appreciated jewel in our midst. I, for one, am hooked!

Jory Squibb lives in Camden.