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.
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.