It would be wrong to sugarcoat what a Taliban victory would mean for Afghanistan. Many Afghans will suffer when we leave, although leave we must—if not this year, then some other year…
In my almost thirty-five years serving our country as a diplomat, I had only one true regret—my year in Afghanistan, 2009-2010. The camaraderie among the Americans, both civilian and military, who worked at the embassy was inspiring, and the dedication and courage of our Afghan colleagues was humbling. But the good work we did there quickly proved quixotic. I particularly regret that I had been such a strong proponent for the military and civilian surges that took place that year, often taking the lead within the embassy in pushing for more and more civilians to serve alongside our military personnel. It seemed to me at that time—although I had wiser colleagues in the embassy who were very skeptical about the surge(s)—that we owed it to those who had sacrificed their lives to make Afghanistan a better place not to give up, and that we also owed it to the Afghan people, many of whom daily risk their lives believing in a better future for their country because of their unflinching belief in the omnipotence and altruism of the American people. But I was wrong. Terribly wrong. And although President Obama’s decision to go along with that surge was politically astute (or he would have been blamed for our ultimate failure in Afghanistan as well as Iraq) and although that surge, like President Bush’s earlier surge in Iraq in 2007, initially succeeded, it should have been obvious that our success would only be transient and that ultimately our very presence in Afghanistan was a stumbling block to any lasting peace there.
When in Doubt, Dismiss All Doubt
Casinos make money. They make a lot of money. They make their money based on one simple human foible: Men might find it hard to leave the table when they are winning, but they find it far harder to leave when they are losing. This is especially true when both money and prestige are on the line. Only the very best of players knows when to “walk away; know when to run” as that old Kenny Rogers ballad goes. And what most people don’t understand, but every casino manager knows is this: Greed plays only a small part in the reluctance to fold ‘em and leave. The excitement of winning, the sheer delight in overcoming the odds, the testing of manhood, and the certainty of our own specialness all weigh heavily on anyone who tries to get up from the table. And what makes it even harder is that you don’t lose all at once. You decide to double down a few times, and you come up a winner now and then, so you press on, thinking the odds have turned and refusing to notice that short-term wins can’t be kept forever.
What is true at the gaming table is a hundredfold truer in war because there is one thing that makes it even harder to leave: an audience. And when the whole world is your stage and the prestige, honor, and loyalty of the world’s greatest power is on display, walking away becomes implacably difficult. We have on occasion, of course, walked away, but only at great moral and psychic cost. It took us enormous losses of life and treasure to leave Vietnam, and today we still argue long into the night—as do many gamblers—that if we had only stayed a little longer it would all have turned out differently… if we had only not deserted our allies, if we had not been so self-indulgent, if we had not grown tired in the face of a relentless enemy. We deserted that battlefield, but the wounds took a generation even to start to heal, and the scars will remain for many generations to come.
Why We Cannot Win
Before the end of May the Pentagon will recommend to President Trump a surge in troops to break the “stalemate” with the Taliban. He is almost certain to accept the recommendations. Like his two immediate predecessors, President Trump will not want to be seen to “lose” a war, and so he will likely conclude—despite his campaign rhetoric about not getting bogged down in aimless, endless conflicts—that he must give the military whatever they ask for. He will also feel compelled to accept the recommendations because like those gamblers at the gaming table, he assumes he can do better than his predecessors. He will be told and he will believe that the reason we have not won the war yet—just as in Vietnam and Iraq—is because we have been fighting with one arm tied behind our back. And on a tactical level, our military leaders will be right. More liberal and flexible Rules of Engagement (ROE) will enable our military to conduct more lethal and effective actions against enemy targets. So the next surge of troops, accompanied by new ROEs, will prove tremendously, albeit only temporarily, effective, breaking the stalemate and allowing both the Pentagon and the President to declare that the tide has turned and victory is assured—much as the Pentagon and President Bush did after the 2007 Iraq surge.
But these tactical gains come at severe strategic costs. First, the new ROEs will result in greater civilian casualties that will inevitably be criticized in the media and turn public opinion even more against the war. Inside Afghanistan itself, the mounting casualties will further erode Afghan confidence in us. Second, even without the new ROEs, our military and civilian leaders still have not come to terms with the simple truth that we are not welcome in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan people, even many who appreciate our assistance, are uncomfortable with our being an occupying force in their land. Some cultures and peoples react more negatively to foreign occupation, and the Afghans, like most of the Islamic world, are among the most intolerant and easily inflamed when strangers overstay their welcome. Third, we have failed for sixteen years to articulate what a realistic victory looks like. If the point of our invasion was to rid Afghanistan of Al Qaeda, then we should have left by 2003. If it was to eliminate the Taliban, then we should never have let them escape to Pakistan. To rid the country of the Taliban now would take more, much more in terms of manpower and money and time than is politically palatable to the American public. And it would also require us to face the fact that Pakistan, the enemy we insist on calling an ally, does not want us to win and will do all in its power to prevent our success. Is the Pentagon and White House really ready to punish Pakistan for harboring the Taliban and providing them support? There is nothing emanating from the White House or Pentagon to suggest that either is prepared to risk chaos in Pakistan in order to win in Afghanistan. But without that confrontation with Pakistan, no surge can ultimately succeed.
But perhaps most importantly, and what neither the Pentagon nor the White House wants to recognize, is the simple reality that someday we must leave. And when we do, all the old wounds and animosities and all the radical ideologies will explode with a vengeance. The Taliban is in no rush. They know they can wait us out. All we can do with this latest surge—as with the Bush surge and the Obama surge—is delay the inevitable. Nothing more. We do not belong there, and our very presence feeds opposition to our objectives. I am sure that when the first Crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099, they thought they were there for good and that the “surges” (subsequent Crusades) of the next 170 years would ensure an enduring victory. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The Cost of Leaving
While this essay deplores those who delude themselves into thinking we can succeed in Afghanistan, it would be wrong to sugarcoat what a Taliban victory would mean for Afghanistan. Many Afghans will suffer when we leave, although leave we must—if not this year, then some other year. And when we finally do, it is those Afghans who have stood steadfast beside us who will suffer most. Primary amongst them will be the women. For nearly a full generation now women in Afghanistan have had access to education and good health care. They have had the freedom to work and to own businesses and to enter politics. All this will likely change once we leave. It is also quite likely that the country itself will splinter, with the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara continuing the fight against the central government if it is controlled by a resurgent Taliban. The one silver lining, if you can call it that, is that the next Afghan government will be unfriendly toward Iran. There is also the prospect of internecine warfare among various factions within the Taliban and between the Taliban and ISIS.
But these silver linings should not allow us to ignore the negative consequences of our leaving. Our only solace is that we cannot forestall forever our own departure, and our continual involvement in Afghanistan is, on balance, exacerbating rivalries among the various people of Afghanistan and worsening the overall image of the United States.
Sixteen years is long enough for any occupation. At this stage, Afghanistan will have to find its own way forward. If and when it does stabilize, we should be ready to offer economic support and technical assistance. But we cannot save those who do not want to be saved by us.
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