From a policy perspective, I am not sure there is much to say about America’s war in Afghanistan that goes beyond the blindingly obvious. The invasion in 2001 had an intelligible goal—to destroy a regime that had become a kind of condominium between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, cemented in fine medieval style, according to some reports, by a marriage between one of Osama bin Laden’s daughters and one of Mullah Omar’s sons. Since the Taliban fell, however, our policy has been incomprehensible—perhaps even to ourselves.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama contrasted an unnecessary war in Iraq with a necessary one in Afghanistan. Had he meant by this only that our invasion of Afghanistan had been both legal and necessary, while our invasion of Iraq had been both illegal and immoral, he would have been on solid ground. But he meant far more than that. At the president’s June press conference with Russia’s head of state, Dmitri Medvedev, President Obama defined the mission as, “first and foremost . . . to dismantle and destroy Al Qaeda and its affiliates so that they can’t attack the United States.” In order to do this, he said, “we have to make sure that we have a stable Afghan government, and we also have to make sure that we’ve got a Pakistani government that is working effectively with us to dismantle these networks.” All of this, Obama insisted, while hewing to a timetable in which the United States begins to draw down troops toward the end of 2011.
And people accused the Bush administration of millenarianism! The fact is that none of these goals are achievable, not just on Obama’s timetable (his Republican critics are absolutely correct on this), but on any timetable at all. The U.S. military has repeatedly confirmed that Al Qaeda is far more active in Pakistan—and, one can reasonably conclude, in the Maghreb, Yemen, Somalia, and Europe, as well—than in Afghanistan. And the Pakistani government is and is always likely to be more concerned with countering Indian adventurism in Afghanistan through a measure of support for the Afghan Taliban and for the mujahedin forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar than collaborating unambiguously with Washington.
The ISI in Islamabad is perfectly capable of helping the CIA out with intelligence while simultaneously maintaining channels to the Taliban’s top leaders, the Quetta Shura: Such complexities are what have always put the “great” in the “Great Game.” Lord Curzon and Francis Younghusband would have had the lack of sentimentality to understand this, even if Obama does not.
But, if the administration is willing to revoke its commitment to any fixed withdrawal schedule, as it should, and not only for operational reasons but moral ones as well, and so long as the American public continues to support or, at least, does not start seriously pressuring Congress to oppose our continued involvement, despite all the costs in blood and money it entails, there is nothing to stop us from remaining in Afghanistan indefinitely. For, while it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban conclusively, we can certainly hold the cities if we choose to—just as the Russians could have done, had they decided to stay. And, as long as we do this, Hamid Karzai will not end up tortured to death and hanging butchered from a lamppost, like the Russian puppet president, Mohammad Najibullah.
Is any of this worth it? In my view, absolutely not. To make a politically incorrect point, I’d feel far safer if we were doing less fighting in Helmand and unleashing even more drone strikes in Pakistan, and doing more spying on mosques in Brooklyn and Somali community centers in Minneapolis. It is not clear whether the administration truly believes we must persevere in Afghanistan or, whether out of cowardice and cynicism (as Andrew Bacevich has suggested at TNR Online), paralysis, or fear, it doesn’t know how to extricate us from that country. That is bad enough. But do Obama and his advisers understand how unrealizable their goals are?
I would like to believe that they do. Whatever else can be said about him, Obama has an excellent analytic mind. It is not as if “we” know something he does not, and, unlike the Bush administration in 2003, which also had many intelligent people working for it, this administration is neither stoned on victory nor drawn to geostrategic master plans. But, while “when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging” may be the oldest political cliché in the book, policymakers almost never seem to take its lesson to heart.
So, in all likelihood, God help us, we will be staying in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. That much seems obvious, and, while I am all for opposing the mission as a matter of conscience, I have no hope at all that this opposition will have any effect. That’s OK. Historically, being on the losing side in such battles has rarely been a dishonorable place to be. I am somewhat more hopeful— comparatively, anyway—that the fact that almost everyone knows the Obama administration’s stated goals in continuing to prosecute this senseless war are unachievable will further the American people’s growing disenchantment with expeditionary wars and humanitarian and human-rights-based military interventions. There may be nothing that can be done about Afghanistan, but perhaps its pointlessness will at least serve as a caution when, as will certainly happen, a future administration proposes yet another adventure in imperial idealism somewhere down the road.
David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.