In the analysis of a war, the where matters as much as the why. About the reasons for our war in Afghanistan, I am still solid. I am confident that the United States has an urgent interest of national security in suppressing or destroying Al Qaeda and its various affiliates in the badlands of the Hindu Kush. I am also confident that, but for our efforts to cripple them, these forces would be further along in their murderous plans for America and Americans. I remember September 11. And I have no philosophical or political problem with our second objective in Afghanistan, the collateral humanitarianism of liberating the place from the medieval death grip of the Taliban.
But I am losing faith in our war. I am tired of hearing that failure is not an option and that we are in this to win. Failure is always an option and a war is not a football game. I am tired also of the capital’s messianic expectations of General Petraeus: The search for a miracle-worker is an admission that it will take a miracle. But what really rattles my confidence in this war is the where. Recently I read Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual. It is a work of genuine intellectual sophistication. It describes a conflict between two forces: an insurgency—“an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government”—and a counterinsurgency—“military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency ... and sustain the established or emerging government.” The arresting thing about this military manual is that it denies the centrality of the military means to the strategic end. “Armed Forces cannot succeed in coin [counterinsurgency] alone.” Quite the contrary. “Cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful counterinsurgency.” And “political factors have primacy in coin.” Here is the heart of the matter: “U.S. forces committed to a coin effort are there to assist a HN [host-nation] government. The long-term goal is to leave a government able to stand by itself. In the end, the host nation has to win on its own.”
I do not doubt the wisdom of all this: the recognition of the indigenous and autonomous character of peoples, the candidly anti-imperialist spirit. (Interventionism and imperialism are decidedly not the same thing.) But these days it looks to me like a warrant not for hope but for despair. For in truth there are not two, but three, forces in this conflict: the insurgency, the counterinsurgency, and the country in which the struggle between them is taking place. As Petraeus says, what will determine the outcome is the host nation. But behold this host nation! I am losing faith in the war in Afghanistan because I am losing faith in Afghanistan. Perhaps there is good news about the HN that is not getting out, but a lot of bad news about it certainly is. I do not see that Afghanistan is either a ready nation or a ready state. (Compared to Afghanistan, Iraq is Sausalito.) The national government in Kabul—the stipulated beneficiary of coin, in theory and in practice— is local and weak and corrupt and, in its regional strategy, cynical. The political culture of the country seems determined almost entirely by tribal, ethnic, religious, cultural, and geographical factors. The civic means recommended by our war doctrine would appear to involve nothing less than the renovation of an entire society and its encrusted patterns of power and influence. The United States cannot accomplish this, and Afghanistan does not seem to want it accomplished. All the consensus in the world at the highest levels of American government will not alter this fact, if a fact it is. In counterinsurgency warfare, we are in their hands. It is foolhardy to make our security contingent upon the creation of a wholly new order for another people.
The bright new idea—the strange child of the cunning of Karzai and the complexity of Petraeus—is that we negotiate with the Taliban. Many knowledgeable people think that this will work. I imagine that some of the Taliban’s ranks may indeed be persuaded or bribed or protected away, but I am not inclined to give the Taliban the benefit of any doubt. They will negotiate with Kabul, and maybe even with Washington, only as a step on their march back to Kabul. Like all millenarian movements, their salvific conception of themselves demands the attainment of political power. And so I believe that the Taliban must be fought. But it must be fought by the people whom it aspires to oppress—and those people seem to want us to fight it for them. They complain, rightly, about Bush’s indifference and Obama’s impatience, but they have not yet risen up together, in a larger union, historically, with a widespread belief in the possibility of a new Afghanistan, to stamp out the fiends in their midst. If Afghanistan has often been the graveyard of empires, it has often been also the graveyard of itself—at least from the standpoint of the liberalization that we seek as the condition of security. Are we supposed to support the Afghans or invent them? The promotion of democracy, which deserves to be rehabilitated in American foreign policy, requires a plausible object. The pace of the “Afghanization” of the war, the dawning of self-reliance, has been discouragingly sluggish. Henry Kissinger, in a sharp dissent (perish the thought) from the president’s policy in The Washington Post last month, proposed that we conceive of our counterinsurgency not nationally but provincially, and operate not above but within the internal divisions of the country, and seek local victories that add up. This means the abandonment of the focus on the central government that is the essence of the Petraeus doctrine. For the purpose of turning back the Taliban—but certainly not for the purpose of a democratic Afghanistan—this might work. I don’t know. But in the provinces, too, the Afghans seem narrowly self-interested and afraid. Their fear is perfectly understandable, but it is their country.
After September 11, the Bush administration adopted the “root causes” analysis of terrorism that the American right once despised, and the war in Afghanistan was the implementation of that analysis. The new coin doctrine is an amplification of it. I agree that there is the problem of terrorists and the problem of terrorism, and that the destruction of terrorists is not the destruction of terrorism. But security cannot wait upon peace, even if peace is the surest form of security. Biden may have been correct: Our security may require no more of us than a relentless drone war, occasionally supported by special operations, against the groups and the planners who threaten us. Most of those enemies are anyway in Pakistan, and in Yemen and Somalia. Let us use force, but let us use it where it will work. I confess that such realism nauseates me, because I would be ashamed for my country to abandon the people of Afghanistan, the women especially, to their once and future theocratic hell. But if Afghanistan does not significantly resist that darkness for itself—“on its own,” in Petraeus’s haunting words—its people will vanish into it anyway. For as long as Afghanistan will be ambiguous, our war will be ambiguous.