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.
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.
The danger in our retreat is that friends may begin to think that Washington under Obama does not have the experience and the courage to have their backs in a crisis, except rhetorically. This is especially critical in relation to Pakistan, given its nuclear capabilities. Pakistan is just as volatile a menace to peace as it was when Obama took power. It has descended into an almost "hysterical anti-Americanism," as Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, has been recently quoted as saying.
The United States has poured lavish aid into Pakistan while that country remains the chief supporter of perhaps the most violent of Taliban factions, the Haqqani Network. The terrorists and insurgents have always had access to a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan, which cannot be reached by the Afghan military forces. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is basically ungovernable, so extremists can easily drift back and forth. As long as they enjoy a safe haven to cross that border, the insurgency can never be totally defeated.
The promised 2014 withdrawal is right, but it will diminish our prestige and respect in the region. That is Obama's dilemma. He has been very bold in extending the drone strikes and eliminating known terrorists. Unfortunately, when he inserted a surge of 30,000 troops, he felt he had to speak to two audiences, which were both relieved for different reasons. Americans at home were glad to hear of the commitment to withdraw. The enemy was glad to have a sense of a timetable to know when they would not be facing American firepower. The president announced in his speech from Kabul that we will not be abandoning Southwest Asia after 2014, but U.S. credibility is dubious and suspect. Many Defense Department experts on Afghanistan think our mission will fail.
War is said to be a series of catastrophes that results in victory. Let's hope this one doesn't end in defeat.