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Despair and Necessity in Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai and Leon Panetta in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 15, 2012.

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If recent events on the ground in Afghanistan aren’t enough to sour the American public on the war there, there’s always Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader, who certainly wouldn’t be in power and probably wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for U.S. forces fighting in his country, says he wants our soldiers out of Afghan villages. If he were to get his way, it would collapse our war effort and, soon enough, his government.

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The impulse to throw up our hands and be done with the entire business is understandable. The protests over the Koran burnings brought home, again, that we are dealing with primitive people in a primitive society operating on a system of values vastly different than ours. The massacre of Afghans allegedly carried out by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was another distressing blow, adding to the sense that things are out of control.

It’s important to remember, though, we aren’t doing this as a favor to the Afghans. It is in our interest that the country not revert to a full-on civil war, with the Taliban possibly regaining control in Kabul and al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network again becoming firmly ensconced in the country. Such an outcome would be a victory for the worst influences within Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state. We might think we can resort to a Plan B that is a version of the original Biden plan — Special Operations raids and drone attacks — but we’d be hard-pressed to operate at all in Afghanistan if the worst comes. Our bases would be besieged, our allies slaughtered, and few people in a mood to cooperate with us.

Despite the calamities of recent weeks, our surge forces have had success in the south. Critics on the right seem to believe they have been only handing out gumdrops to the kids and drinking tea with the tribal elders, when they have been relentlessly killing the enemy and clearing him from former strongholds. And doing so in cooperation with Afghan forces, despite the so-called green-on-blue attacks of Afghan allies on our troops that have gotten so much attention. We aren’t working to strengthen legitimate Afghan authorities and the military for the sake of good governance in central Asia. We want to enable them eventually to take on the fight on their own.

But we will never succeed if Afghans believe we are in a rush for the exits. At the moment, the Taliban doesn’t believe we have staying power and neither does Hamid Karzai. Both are reacting accordingly — the Taliban by backing out of talks to wait us out, Karzai by distancing himself from us. George W. Bush profoundly mismanaged the Iraq war at times, but he always had one thing right: The commander in chief has to communicate an unshakable resolve to maintain the confidence of local allies. President Obama is all tortured ambiguity and obvious hesitance on Afghanistan. The main thing he can do immediately to try to stabilize the situation on the ground is to say repeatedly and unmistakably that he won’t consider any more withdrawals in the current environment.

If he does the opposite, conditions may deteriorate further. If the president were to decide to effectively liquidate the war altogether, we would be looking at another Vietnam — and not circa 1973, but 1975, without even a decent interval before the Taliban, and surely al-Qaeda too, are celebrating on our bases. It may be that Afghan society ultimately rejects us, or that it simply doesn’t have the coherence necessary to keep from eventually slipping back into chaos. Success is not guaranteed in this, or any other war. But the president’s half-heartedness guarantees a slide toward defeat.



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