Ten is a curiously unlucky number for America in relation to Afghanistan. Ten years ago, on Jan. 29, 2002, the Federal Register carried this formal statement by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage: "I hereby determine as of this date that the Taliban controls no territory within Afghanistan."
Ten years later, we are still at war with the Taliban. It has not been completely defeated as it once seemed. The United States has just announced, after months of negotiations with the Afghan government, that because of the threat of a Taliban resurgence, we will pledge American support for 10 years after U.S. combat troops pull out at the end of 2014. There is to be a NATO conference in Chicago starting on May 20 to work out whether and how much the allies will chip in to this 10-year commitment of money and men, which takes us all to 2024.
The State Department's 2002 statement of success wasn't as much of a brag as President George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner on the deck of the aircraft carrier after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The statement was required to amend an order issued by President Clinton for U.S. sanctions on property and transactions within "the territory of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban." It was readily acknowledged that U.S. troops were still hunting down remnants of the Taliban, including its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
They still are. We went to war to make sure that country would never again serve as a haven for terrorists. We were wholly justified in doing that by 9/11. We secured a brilliantly quick victory and then put the country on the back burner, where it simmered and now threatens to boil over in places. President Obama's triumph in ridding the world of Osama bin Laden, hiding in plain sight of the Pakistani military, would have surely been impossible without our base in Afghanistan. But the good war has turned bad. This is now the longest war in our history, and what do we have to show for it? More than 1,900 American soldiers are dead, over 15,000 wounded, and we have spent roughly $1 trillion so far, including some $18 billion in U.S. aid alone, and are spending now at the rate of $4 billion to $6 billion a month.
What has gone wrong? Well, we are part of an occupying army largely ignorant of local history, tribal structures, languages, customs, politics, and society. We have proved we can kill terrorists but not the culture. Therefore, we have been unable to recruit large numbers of Afghan Pashtuns for our counterinsurgency doctrine. Afghanistan is simply too backward and too expensive for us to have entered into a nation-building project there. Yes, we have improved the quality of life, but the good deeds are not remembered when four Korans, their pages debased by Afghan scribbles, are burned; when U.S. Marines vent their frustrations by urinating on corpses; when NATO helicopters apparently fire on civilians; and when an American soldier allegedly goes berserk and kills 17 innocents in a mad shooting spree.
Such cruelties and accidents are inevitable byproducts of war and occupation, and they require investigation, apologies, and damages. But instead of trying to alleviate outrage, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, aggravates it. He calls Americans "demons" and the Koran burnings "satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies." He contributes to the poisoning of relations precisely when trust is essential to continuing our efforts. Unsurprisingly, incidents continue in which Americans are being killed by Afghan security personnel.
Karzai's government is deeply corrupt, undemocratic, treacherous, and reeking of ingratitude. Karzai has publicly distanced himself from Americans, demanding that U.S. forces be confined to their bases and withdraw completely by the end of 2013. His government has tried to prevent NATO forces from "night raids" on suspected insurgents' hideouts, and now has a veto for controversial special operations raids. Tribal identification may be paramount, but any government of thieves has too little reach. We can't persuade millions of ordinary Afghans to prefer their own government to the insurgents.