With the reality of the Afghan war so grim, it is perhaps logical that Western leaders choose to avoid it and take refuge in fantasy. Their partners in Kabul, eager for profit, encourage America's delusions. Rarely has this been clearer than when President Hamid Karzai promised Tuesday that he would have his country under full military control within four years.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked him. Prime Minster David Cameron of Great Britain called his plan realistic. It was a job well done: the Afghan war will be won “by the end of 2014.”
No one truly believes this, of course. Yet Western leaders eagerly joined the stylized dance of pretending to believe it. Denial has become their reflexive response to the Afghan conundrum. They are slowly realizing that they cannot win there, but cannot imagine a way to withdraw.
After promising that he will bring Afghanistan under secure pro-Western rule by 2014, Karzai catapulted even further into the realm of fantasy by giving donor countries what one news report called a “commitment to good governance.”
Both sides in this Kabuki drama feed each other's needs. Westerners cheered when Karzai told them in Kabul on Tuesday: “We face a vicious common enemy.” They knew this was the same man who just three months ago threatened to “ join the Taliban” if foreigners continued to pressure him. But they desperately want to believe that Karzai is their ally and partner—and willingly ignore reality to keep their belief.
• Ellen Knickmeyer: We’re Training the Next OsamaAfter promising that he will bring Afghanistan under secure pro-Western rule by 2014, Karzai catapulted even further into the realm of fantasy by giving donor countries what one news report called a “commitment to good governance.” Coming from one of the world's most accomplished plunderers of foreign aid, such a commitment is beyond irony.
Yet even some who realize its insincerity cheered on Tuesday.
Karzai was richly rewarded for playing his part in this surreal ritual. Donor countries agreed that henceforth they will send half their aid directly to his stupefyingly corrupt regime; until now it has only been 20 percent. Centuries ago Henri of Navarre famously decided that Paris was worth a mass; for Karzai, telling foreigners the sugar-coated lies they want to hear is a small price to pay for the hard currency that will now flow into his coffers and those of the warlords who sustain him.
Armored vehicles, paratroop units and snipers sealed off Kabul's streets during this week's conference. A plane carrying Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon could not land in Kabul due to rocket fire. But who cares, if President Karzai is promising victory and good governance?
Abandoning these fantasies is difficult because it entails accepting painful realities.
First, Afghanistan has never been a unified country. No one based in Kabul has ever controlled it. One of the founding follies of America's Afghan project was its drive to give the country a strong central government. Decentralization has been the essential fact of Afghan life for centuries. By seeking to replace it with a strong regime in Kabul, it has upset complex balances and helped plunge a nation into chaos.
Second, Afghans are world champions at resisting foreign occupation. Large numbers of them will never support a Christian army from afar in a war against locals.
Third, no insurgency in modern times has ever been defeated while it enjoys a sanctuary in a neighboring country. Pakistan's assurance that it is cracking down on pro-Taliban networks is laughable. Pakistan sees no interest in crushing these networks, because it will need them to project power in Afghanistan after the US withdraws. Yet to appease Washington, Pakistan pretends to crack down, and the US dutifully praises its half-hearted campaigns.
Fourth, Karzai is not a partner with whom to win a war. He does not even want to fight. His concern is to enrich himself while the Americans are around, and build alliances that will sustain him after they leave. America's interests do not coincide with Karzai's any more than they do with Pakistan's. In fact, America's main local allies in the anti-Taliban war, Karzai and the Pakistanis, are also the Taliban's paymasters and enablers. Saudi Arabia also not-so-quietly supports the Taliban. This alliance is not made for victory.
The final reality the US wishes to avoid is that there is no way out of Afghanistan without a regional solution. Accommodating other powers is something new for American policy makers. It violates their instinctive conviction, left over from Cold War days, that the US has enough strategic power to control events more or less as it wishes. But there will only be peace in Afghanistan if the interests of Pakistan, India, Russia, and especially Iran are accommodated.
Iran has considerable ability to help stabilize Afghanistan, and in fact worked with the US to that end after the Sept. 11 attacks. Large swaths of Afghanistan were part of Iran until the 19th century. The Persian language is still spoken there. Iranian influence is deep and wide-ranging. Yet the US cannot bring itself to approach Iran for help in escaping from the Afghan quagmire.
America's refusal to face Afghan realities reflects its larger difficulty: adjusting to a new world in which its power is limited and its goals can be achieved only by cooperating with other powers. Americans prefer to pretend that times haven't changed. Karzai willingly accommodates them. He tells Western donors what they want to hear, and in exchange they allow him to steal their money.
The recent firing of America's commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was just one fleeting scene in the escalating Afghan tragedy. This week's mind-numbing spectacle of President Karzai promising security and good governance—while a horde of foreigners cheered as if they believed him—was another. The conflict in Afghanistan will probably end for the United States, as General McChrystal's chief of operations predicted in the now-infamous Rolling Stone interview, with something that “doesn't look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.”
American leaders now face the challenge that their predecessors faced in the Vietnam era: how do we withdraw as quickly and painlessly as possible, in a way that allows us to claim we were not defeated? To answer that question requires confronting harsh realities. Far easier is to cheer Karzai and pretend that a Western “coalition” will be able, for the first time in history, to impose its will on Afghanistan.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.