National Review has asked me to comment upon the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. I don’t know what the current state is; I do know it doesn’t much matter. Let me explain.
Our reason for invading that remote, medieval country in 2001 was to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, which had murdered 3,000 civilians at the World Trade Center. Our military failed to destroy AQ but did drive it into Pakistan. To keep AQ from reestablishing a base inside Afghanistan, modest U.S. assets (say, 10,000 troops) are needed.
However, the UN, NATO, and the U.S. decided in 2002 to broaden the Afghan mission to infinite dimensions. The triumvirate determined that 30 million illiterate, fractious tribesmen deserved to be reformed into an economically viable democracy defined by Western values and laws. The West would accomplish this Herculean task while handing total sovereignty over to its hand-picked, “elected” ruler, Hamid Karzai. Unlike the British, who had ruled a century ago via colonialism and reprisals, the West in the 21st century scrupulously abjured direct interference in Afghan affairs, while nonetheless guaranteeing countrywide security, propping up government officials, building an infrastructure, and paying for a viable economy. Once the U.S. established that mission, it could never be ended. Like Detroit or Jersey City, Afghanistan would always need more money.
Throughout the past decade, Pakistan has given sanctuary and aid to the Taliban because Pakistan is determined to keep Afghanistan in a subservient geopolitical position that does not benefit India (or any other power). So by 2006, the American troops in Afghanistan were waging war against the resurgent Taliban. This was not the original mission. And, like the task of ensuring democracy, it guaranteed the U.S. could not leave. Our forces fell under the political control of Karzai, and gradually our generals tightened proscriptions against air strikes to the extent that today, U.S. forces neither patrol nor go out as advisers, while Afghan forces are forbidden to call in air. Fighting rifle against rifle guarantees the Taliban can continue attacking year after year.
We know little about this war. We had decent metrics in Vietnam; we knew which areas were safe, and we knew how the North Vietnamese were building up with Chinese and Russian aid. In Iraq in 2007–08, General Petraeus painstakingly laid out all the data, including insurgent-held areas. In contrast, today we don’t know whether the Afghan army is successfully taking over for our troops. Six consecutive American commanding generals said things were improving; none were correct. The U.S. military cannot be relied upon to present a candid assessment, and the military can bar any reporter from any section of the country.
The current commander, General Joseph Dunford, has been careful to promise nothing. The issue is whether the Afghan police and army can prevent the Taliban from making significant gains. The early 2013 signs in press releases are promising, if judged by Afghan commando teams benefiting from coalition intelligence and helicopter support. If the Afghan forces succeed in holding the line without fire support and American advisers in the field, then we should be both relieved and vexed that we lingered so long before letting them fight their own war. But Afghan doughtiness won’t be truly tested until out troops have left, and we don’t know whether U.S. intelligence and helicopter support will persist thereafter.
We don’t know whether the unreliable Karzai, before leaving office next year, will make a political deal (i.e., a significant concession) with the Taliban. The most problematic wild card in 2013 is a preemptive move by Karzai that unsettles the Afghan army and opens the way for a tribal realignment of military battle lines. But the odds are that Karzai lacks the internal tribal backing to make that kind of move.