Afghanistan the Unknown
We will win if we emphasize our core mission and spend modest long-term dollars.

U.S. Marines in Helmand Province, April 9, 2013 (Photo: Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline)


Bing West

The Afghan presidential election in 2014, coupled with the departure of most NATO troops, will be more significant than events in 2013. Next year will see a continuation of the fighting in the countryside, with the cities still protected. It is highly unlikely that there will be any serious enemy offensive like Tet in 1968, because the Taliban lack the vehicles, fuel, and heavy weapons to advance on the major cities.

In Vietnam, despite the ferocity of the fighting and the number of civilian casualties, the South Vietnamese had — and still have — affection for Americans. Even the politburo in Hanoi is amenable. The Afghan culture is quite different — standoffish, Muslim, tribal, and often xenophobic. After the murders of our soldiers and the insulting rants of Karzai, the American public is disaffected. Before he leaves office next year, he is certain to lash out again, because he is desperate to show that he is a nationalist patriot who defies foreign control.

The American public is unwilling to further risk our soldiers and give away money in order to build a nation whose officials berate us while failing to serve their own people. Hence, the most predictable of multiple potential crises looms in 2015, when President Obama will have to use considerable leverage to persuade Congress to continue allocating, year after year, $6 to 8 billion to Afghan forces and governance, after our NATO allies have likely fallen short of their pledges.

However, our bedrock goal — preventing the reemergence of an al-Qaeda sanctuary — appears achievable in the worst of circumstances, even if our presence on the ground is negligible. Our CIA has done an excellent job in setting up an extensive network of informers who detest the Taliban and AQ. Our overhead imagery and bombing platforms improve every year. There is no area out of reach to our Special Operations Forces — and larger forces, if need be. In 2001, an entire Marine brigade flew into southern Afghanistan from ships in the Persian Gulf. AQ cannot establish a significant sanctuary in Afghanistan without our knowledge; we have the military tools — bombing, commandos, even a brigade raid — to keep AQ bottled up in the mountains of Pakistan.

In sum, events in 2013 are preliminary. Time blurs into a long series of unknowables. The one knowable is that Afghan forces require modest dollars over the long term. We will not abandon Afghanistan; nor should we emphasize it. We tried to do too much, and we’ve learned our lesson. Most probably Afghanistan will play out in slow motion, ebbing from the American consciousness year by year.

Afghanistan is just one battlefield. The bombing in Boston had no apparent link to events there, but Islamist terrorism is a cancerous ideology. Boston demonstrated that we must fight and win the global war on terror. Undoubtedly the world took note of how swiftly we acted, citizens and police together. The Afghan tribes will find their own way. Al-Qaeda will not again openly set up bases in that remote country. That is achievement enough. The larger, diffuse war will go on.

— A former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, Bing West has written five books about combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is working on his sixth book, about an embattled Marine platoon in Afghanistan and the role of courage.