Last week provided a treasure trove of raw meat for foreign policy enthusiasts, ideologues and talk radio hosts.

The decision of the Obama administration to refocus missile defense in Europe away from the distant danger of a long-range Iranian ICBM threat to the proliferation of much shorter-range ballistic missiles that already can strike targets in the Middle East and Europe began a partisan firefight that will carry on for at least 15 rounds. And the conclusion of the Afghan elections that finally awarded Hamid Karzai some 54 percent of the vote by no means ended the controversy over the extent of voter fraud that contaminated both the process and the legitimacy of the newly elected government.

Then, on the eve of the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York and the G20 gathering in Pittsburgh thereafter, the unauthorized and sensational release of the assessment of the situation in Afghanistan by commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal was high-octane fuel for the political firefight catalyzed by President Barack Obama’s reversal of George W. Bush’s missile defense plans. Critics from both the left and right immediately accused the leakers of trying to force the administration’s hand one way or the other without fully appreciating the full implications of what McChrystal offered in his objective and blunt assessment of conditions in Afghanistan. But this being Washington, facts rarely get in the way of inflammatory rhetoric.

Before returning to Afghanistan, a word on the missile defense squabble provides some context. Strategically, the Obama decision is sensible, correct and undoes the damage of the ideological obsession with missile defense. Unfortunately, any change cuts through a great deal of scar tissue. Hence, the consequences can be bloody and severe. The administration argued that it took this path based on intelligence reports that evaluated Iran’s shorter-range missiles as a more realistic threat. But many observers believe that Russia was the clear target. Having hit the reset button, forgoing long-range missile defenses in Europe was exactly what Moscow wanted as a prelude to a new detente.

Whether that is true (and in an international conference last week on these topics a pessimistic conclusion drawn by both Russian and Western participants was that regarding arms control, Moscow will not take “yes” for an answer in the current environment), the United States would be wise to act in its best interests as well as its allies’ without promise or hope of a Russian quid pro quo. Similarly in Afghanistan, the United States needs to fashion its policies ruthlessly on our specific interests rather than on a quest or crusade to establish democracy or bring our version of human rights to Kabul.

McChrystal’s assessment implicitly challenged the Obama “strategy” announced last March in which the “core” reason for our presence in Afghanistan was the disruption, dismantlement and defeat of al-Qaida in the region. McChrystal concludes otherwise. The main threat he sees is in the form of three Taliban groups – under Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – and not Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers. Furthermore, the Obama strategy was based on a “three-legged” stool represented by governance, development and security.

It is clear now after the Afghan election that the governance leg was at best a peg. Similarly, the development leg thus far has been hollow. And no stool can rest for long on one leg no matter how strong. The McChrystal assessment subtly reaffirms these realities.

This column has argued for a “hail Mary” approach in Afghanistan that would attempt to put some backbone in the Karzai government; greatly accelerate the training of Afghan security forces; and seek a rapprochement between India and Pakistan that would enable Islamabad to move more forces west. Each is an extremely long shot. Beyond these efforts, the Obama administration needs a strategy that forces Kabul to take on greater responsibility while, rather than “cutting and running,” we can “cut and walk,” gradually reducing our presence in Afghanistan.

While Afghan forces are being trained, NATO should apply the “clear and hold” policy to Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and a few other major cities rather than large provinces such as Helmand, allowing these populated areas to become the centers of gravity for promoting development. More combat (as opposed to training) troops would not be required, and indeed some could be withdrawn. To the degree that reconciliation and negotiation can bring tribal leaders into the fold, that approach is essential. But make no mistake as the McChrystal assessment vividly demonstrates. The governance and development legs of the strategic stool are broken or missing. Cutting back on what we can and will do, short of sending masses of troops who will not turn the tide, is the best outcome we can obtain.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense UniversityThis essay was previously published as “The Afghan debacle” in UPI