In addition, Karzai's government is deeply involved in drug trafficking. On top of these drug profits, many millions of dollars we send to Afghanistan end up being channeled through Karzai's administration to personal accounts in financial safe havens abroad. With a government in Kabul so predatory, an army that is a mess, and tribal loyalties superseding national loyalties, the Taliban gains strength, and American lives and treasure are sinking down a rathole.
As Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, pointed out recently, Afghanistan is a possible narco-state. Afghan poppies are the source of the opium that bankrolls corrupt government officials and the Taliban alike, and provide an astonishing 90 percent of the world's heroin. In fact, the willingness of the Taliban to protect the poppy fields has built the group's image as the protector of the peasants whose support it needs.
Today, Afghanistan is Obama's war. He put in an extra 30,000 troops. More than half of the American combat deaths have occurred on his watch. The country is simply absorbing more economic, military, human, diplomatic, and political resources than can be justified. The polls have large majorities for getting out. The question must be asked: Do U.S. interests warrant this level of money and sacrifice?
Now the president has to disentangle America from that war under much worse conditions. We are trying to train the Afghan security forces so they can take over from the West. This is going to take years, and we are ending our fighting role in a matter of months. The Afghans themselves will have to defeat the Taliban; we cannot make up for their shortcomings. Their tribal leaders understand better how to maintain control in a land divided by impossible geography and immutable tribal loyalty. Of course, we would like to ensure that Afghanistan will never again become a haven for terrorists. But there is no belief here at home that the threat of terrorism is grave enough to require the current level of military response, the financial costs, and the loss of life. Not when there seems to be no shared purpose between the Afghan public and the U.S. military. Today, nation-building in Afghanistan is clearly beyond the will of the American public.
The basic political fact for the United States is that the killing of bin Laden last year gave the U.S. government all the political and security rationale it needs to justify a withdrawal. Afghanistan is not the significant global terrorist threat that it once was—not when the estimated number of al Qaeda fighters there is under 100.
But we can't just abandon the place. We need a strategy that enables us to withdraw in a way that doesn't raise more questions about America's ability to define or execute its proclaimed goal. Yet with just one third of Afghan battalions rated as effective, and thus unable to really stand up to the Taliban, chaos and civil war may be inevitable if we just leave. Credibility remains critical. Some Afghan battalions will probably lose heart and fall apart. It is possible that withdrawal could regenerate the conditions that existed before 9/11, which would allow al Qaeda to get back in the global jihad business. That is what we are trying to prevent even as we withdraw.
Winding down the war promises to be even more complicated than getting in. We need to develop small, local counterterrorism forces focused on precluding or containing al Qaeda and to provide them with drones and the training to deal with Taliban cells in Pakistan. Vartan Gregorian recommends we find a way to transform opium production, which is based on poppy cultivation and is currently central to the Afghan economy, into opium for morphine production, which would provide many Afghan farmers with a stable, dependable, and legal income so they could feed their families. Economic progress will be the key to political stability and the "poppies for medicine" idea could transform opium production into a health industry. We have to accept that we have not been able to eradicate the mind-set that gave rise to al Qaeda, a mind-set that is, alas, once again on the rise in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.