There is a popular new TV show in Kabul. It’s called 2014. Guests surmise how bad things could get after NATO departs. The program epitomizes the mood I found after three weeks in Afghanistan, confirmed and reconfirmed by numerous conversations in Herat, Kandahar, and Kunduz. Afghans described “a dark horizon” ahead. More important, they question why the United States is abandoning them. Most believed that with the U.S. alongside—meaning some thousand troops, not tens of thousands—their country stands a chance. The show, they said, fit Afghans’ dark humor, irony, and stoicism. Their overall mood matched wintertime Kabul’s gray, pockmarked setting, inverted polluted cold air, and trapped below the Hindu Kush’s snowy peaks.
No Afghan I spoke with knew the name of the American ambassador, and one said that whenever the four-star NATO commander addressed them, it was “only bad news regarding more civilian casualties.” American silence made things worse. Property prices in Kabul already had dropped 40 percent. Gun prices had increased in multiples. Afghans were hunkering down, and several mentioned another civil war.
U.S. and coalition investments in Afghanistan have been significant, colored in reds and green. Thousands dead, even more wounded, with billions disbursed. The Longest War in American History. Americans are tired. NATO is tired. So are the Afghans, even more than we are. Their costs have been greater. Their bravery far less heralded—no autobiographical war books scribed by Pashtun warrior-poets on Amazon.com or in Hollywood scripts.
The fundamental question before President Obama and his team persists. How to ensure U.S. national security is not undermined as we “responsibly” draw down? After spending almost three years in Afghanistan (mainly in Khost and Helmand), I am convinced a baseline troop presence is necessary ... for a long time. Think decades, not years. Think Korea or Germany.
SEALs and drones will not be enough in this high-stakes game, though a seductive image from Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a mirage. Talk of zero troops in Afghanistan might be a short-term and perhaps effective negotiating ploy. A sustained message from the White House along these lines, however, would amount to national security malfeasance. I can hear the late, great Richard Holbrooke lecturing from beyond the grave, thundering with conviction and cause:
How could the mighty United States of America get this historic endgame so wrong?!
The post-Holbrooke policy void needs to be filled with another driven statesman born with Machiavellian instincts and enjoying welcome access to the commander in chief. (Afghan politicos knife-fight over tea and with a smile, the same warlords we reempowered due to lackadaisical and naive U.S. policies.) Where are the worthy? And when will President Obama make the call? Wars do not end on their own, or by the calloused hands of our military led by generals. Politicians start them and end them.
Last week’s collegial but meandering press conference by Presidents Obama and Karzai is sure to reinforce fears about U.S. abandonment. Afghans remember the precedent. While those reclining in Washington parlors fixate on how quickly troops will depart, Kabulis said final numbers mattered less than American endurance, a sustained strategic presence.
But it seems we’re about to fold—caught up in the most recent version of the region’s Great Game for so long. I’m from the American West. I play poker. Our current strategy makes no sense, even if the chips were plastic and not counted out in lives and limb. The United States appears ready to concede its hand before seeing all the cards on the table ... and underneath, how many pistols with itchy trigger fingers might be pointed our way? Now is not the time to walk away, or run.
In the recent head of state visit, the White House appeared focused more on Karzai’s psychology than on the psychology of millions of Afghans, who hedge their lives daily. There’s plenty of well-earned distrust between sides. It is a dangerous dance for ordinary Afghans as both leaders deliberate. Other governments, American friends and enemies or some quasi-version, are doing the same. Neither wartime president spoke directly to the Afghan people or region, while the American people did hear the administration’s nation-building-at-home mantra.
Until Afghans see U.S. troops staying put, they won’t believe it. And it is in our interest for Marines and soldiers to remain, however few and refocused their mission. Equally, Americans need to see Afghans out front, doing more with less, and fast. Twelve years after 9/11, economic concerns still dominate the homefront. The warfront remains distant as others’ kids dodge the roadside bombs.
But it is not too late to correct our course. We can do a lot with a little, provided we stay long enough. NATO’s most monstrous bases should go away, but not our hard-won foothold. Afghanistan’s east has long been home to the greatest threat—the turf of the Haqqanis and friends—and remains our strategic over-watch platform into a nuclear, unstable Pakistan. We must keep our eyes and resources focused there. And Kandahar will always be the Taliban’s spiritual home. Best to keep “enemies” and inevitable negotiating partners close.
SEAL Team 6 did not launch their successful Osama bin Laden mission from the Indian Ocean but rather from eastern Jalalabad. And let’s not forget on May 1, 2010, an inept would-be terrorist trained in northwest Pakistan tried to kill New Yorkers in Times Square by blowing up a Nissan Pathfinder. He failed. Smoke billowed, but a bomb did not detonate. If he had succeeded, today’s debate would be different. Indeed, America’s commander in chief might still be holding a magnifying glass along the Durand Line, not just ordering more predator drone strikes.
The early February arrival of the war-wise Marine general, Joseph Dunford, as the new top NATO commander (along with his State Department political adviser Carter Malkasian, an American icon among Pashtuns in Helmand; he speaks the native tongue) provides us with an opportunity to reassure Afghans: while America’s longest war is ending—as it should—we are not leaving. Dunford and the able U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham should consider a joint appearance on Kabul television.
Even better, they might travel together to key places throughout the country, speaking with thick American accents about an enduring partnership. A political-military message not lost in translation behind Washington podiums will help reverse the self-fulfilling mindset that the Americans are abandoning Afghanistan, again, the next civil war inevitable. The ambassador-commander road show should in turn elicit renewed commitments from Afghans to fight hardest—but not alone.
Before departing Afghanistan the day after this past Christmas, I flew to Herat, a bustling city on the Iranian border, as well as to Kunduz and Kandahar. An Afghan entrepreneur (in construction) and a young law professor sat next to me. The businessman said the Taliban were weak, but America’s public message was weaker still.
The professor noted his Herat University students did not want U.S. troops to stay longer than necessary. Waiting for NATO military convoys to pass on roads got old a long time ago, but a complete 2014 departure guaranteed failure and bloodshed.
Days later, in the Kabul Airport, first built by the Soviets and later remodeled with Japanese funds, I noticed two 20-something travelers from China, official documents in hand, in front of me at passport control. They were dressed like Americans from L.A. (baseball caps, hoodies, one even without socks despite the December temperatures). I do not know what brought them to Afghanistan—perhaps the massive copper mine, Mes Aynak, that Beijing holds rights to?—but they appeared to be repeat visitors with well-used People’s Republic of China passports.
In the lobby, I joined a group of turban-wearing elders, who reminded me of Khost. Well, several said they were from that province on their Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Half were friendly, the others not very. One of the oldest used his right hand to motion circlelike in the air, a helicopter, the left shaped in the form of a gun. (He came from Sabari, perhaps the Haqqanis’ favorite district.) His pantomime meant: U.S. helos, down. Through my own hand signals, I reminded him about the value of Stinger missiles provided by the U.S.A. during the Soviet occupation. He switched subjects, and invited me to convert to Islam on the spot.
As we walked into the Safi Airways plane, the last language I heard was Russian. White-haired men in heavy parkas carried passports marked “Ukraine.”
Before landing in Dubai, while over Iranian territory, I kept thinking about an Afghan student in Khost in 2008. A teacher proudly introduced her as “my top one.” The charismatic student, a big smile under long black bangs, said that Americans could leave “only after I graduate from university.”
Her graduation date, if she made it to college at all, will fall well beyond 2014.
It won’t take many troops but several billion U.S. dollars annually to reinforce long-term U.S. national security interests, and probably prevent a civil war—not to mention increase this girl’s odds. She too endures Afghanistan, daily, still hopeful I’d like to think, a world away from D.C.’s beltway full of deciders.