There are lots of legitimate differences over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Arguments continue over what happened to the “good” or “real” war that after the first five years of relative quiet (from 2001 through 2006 there were never more than 100 Americans lost per year) began heating up in 2007–8 (even as Iraq quieted), and by 2009 (317 lost) and 2010 (499 lost) had become a mess, even as we began to pour reinforcements and more money into the country. (No one to this date has explained adequately why violence increased even as we put more troops and material into the country and disengaged our efforts and attention from Iraq. There are all sorts of possible explanations, but none really have been offered.)
Forget the background, context, and all the various exegeses, and simply note that we have reached a point where the secretary of defense is met with a probable assassination attempt upon landing at a coalition, supposedly secure, airport, and the American soldiers he addresses, for the first time in recent U.S. military protocol, have to be disarmed, given fears of some sort of repeat of last week’s appalling shooting.
Somehow the U.S. finds itself in a position of having to apologize for the inadvertent burning of terrorist-desecrated Korans; of not expecting an apology from Karzai (a recipient of the 2004 Liberty Medal) for the murdering of U.S. troops by their supposedly friendly Afghan counterparts; and of again having to apologize for a horrific mass murdering spree by a lone, rogue gunman, who, nonetheless, off-the-record, is said to be emblematic of the frustration of U.S. troops. Our troops are largely forgotten by the administration and the public, cannot trust fully those on behalf of whom they are risking their lives, and are not sure what the U.S. mission has become. When an invading and occupying force apologizes so repeatedly to the resident population, it is a sign that locals have lost any fear of its unpredictability and lethality, or respect for its proven record of reconstruction and humanity, or for its own sense of self-confidence in its mission.
So what now?
a) To escalate is politically impossible and strategically nonsensical.
b) To leave abruptly is to admit defeat and cede complete control of the country de facto to the Taliban, and to confess that the previous human and material cost was wasted, while relegating millions of pro-Western-reform Afghans in the major cities to Taliban reprisals or refugee status. (I assume that at this point the Afghan Security Forces would not fight on, or at least not fight very well, alone against the insurgents.)
c) To continue with the present policy of announced withdrawal dates, and a final departure in two years, punctuated by periodic apologies to the Afghans when their customs are abridged, or civilians killed, in the hope that the Karzai government and its successor by 2014 will come to a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, one that will not nullify all the gains achieved in the last decade — a dubious proposition at best.
Even to ensure choice “c,” at some point, the president must review with the public exactly what our aims are in Afghanistan, and then at least appear engaged in the daily progress, or lack thereof, in achieving those goals. In the last three years, there have been too many senior ground commanders in Afghanistan, too many diplomats of various sorts, from ambassadors to czars, too many long silences, punctuated by too many sudden and loud yo-yo announcements of both surges and withdrawals to suggest to enemies and friends alike any consistent, firm policy. Fairly or not, the impression now is that the administration wakes up only to headlines, and just wants to leave any way it can as fast as it can, through back-room deals with the Taliban, through apologies to the Karzai government, and through mostly out-of-sight, out-of-mind silence with the American people.
Yet, we at last have proven leaders and brilliant commanders and diplomats at all the key posts now concerned with Afghanistan — the CentCom commander, the senior ground commander, the ambassador in Kabul, and the head of the CIA. What is lacking to ensure some sort of calm as we wind down is firm leadership and direction from the very top — unfortunately that “what” is important.