For 12 years the United States has waged war in Afghanistan, pursuing a shifting set of objectives as public interest came and went. Now, facing the full withdrawal of military forces by the end of 2014, time is running out to make what we can of the country we’ve occupied for more than a decade.
While the nation has avoided an accounting, the Afghan campaign has expanded over the course of years and successive American administrations into one of the largest state-building programs in the history of the world. We have sent a second, parallel army made up of State Department and other personnel to develop social institutions and a rudimentary civil society through massive economic and agricultural projects, and a third army of contractors to support the first two.
Despite our efforts, it’s not clear that there will be any civil society in Afghanistan after we withdraw or, despite the blood and treasure we’ve spent, that Americans see the country as much more than an allegory about our elected leaders and ourselves.
The way we leave Afghanistan matters. It affects the power balance and politics of the whole region. It also informs the precedent for how we view the purposes and limits of our nation’s military. We don’t want to leave it in a condition that invites our return. And how we exit matters, not least of all, to the soldiers we are still sending to fight there, to our Afghan allies who have partnered with us in good faith, and to the citizens of that country who have known nothing but war and want to know peace.
“Afghan good enough” is the military phrase for limiting our objectives to what is achievable and not overreaching. Given the country’s violent history and its present condition less as a nation-state than a patchwork of tribal groups, Afghan good enough has become, for many within the military, the best that we can hope for. Facing short timelines and intractable obstacles, the military has slowly weaned itself off the gung-ho ideals it originally held and defined its expectations down.
When an Afghan official is found to be corrupt and fleecing his constituents, the answer is not to arrest or fire him—there’s no faith in the justice system, and who knows whether his replacement wouldn’t be worse—but to encourage him to steal less and practice a more honest graft. When Afghan police units refuse to pursue the insurgent forces that operate in their area but at least man their checkpoints, that too is considered Afghan good enough.
It’s hard to achieve a recognizable victory in a war whose aims keep being redefined.
Alongside the state-building, there has been a shift in strategy away from hunting al Qaeda and fighting the Taliban to developing Afghan forces capable of taking over after we leave, fighting where necessary, and maintaining the fragile peace where it now exists.
Few U.S. units still conduct operations on their own; they either are partnered with the Afghan military or have pulled back even further from the battle into a mentoring and advisory role. Even special operations forces, long the go-to units for nonpartnered raids and other lethal operations, increasingly devote less manpower and time to hunting insurgents and more to training Afghans.
It’s hard to achieve a recognizable victory in a war whose aims keep being redefined, but perhaps this, too, is Afghan good enough. We have achieved considerable success at prosecuting central al Qaeda and denying it sanctuary in Afghanistan, an effort that culminated in the public view with the raid on Osama bin Laden.
But the Taliban, once in decline, has been resurgent in recent years and now effectively controls large parts of the Pashtun south.
The Afghan military forces, which have been the focus of American training and funding, have displayed a mixed record at best. Desertion and corruption are both rampant. The logistical system is incapable of providing necessary supplies on time, and in many cases the willingness of units to fight is questionable.
The Afghan forces, unsurprisingly, take the long view. They know we are leaving soon, and where they see themselves outnumbered many seek accommodation with the Taliban as a means of self-preservation. The upshot has been that some areas once rid of Taliban forces have been ceded back to them after the Afghan Army took over responsibility.
Most troubling has been the attacks by uniformed members of the Afghan forces against their American counterparts. This violence, called “Green on Blue” or “insider attacks,” has become a regular feature of the war and strikes at the heart of the U.S. strategy. The pall of suspicion aroused by the Green on Blue attacks can become poisonous in an environment where American service members are tasked not only with training but also often living and fighting alongside their Afghan partners.
The next presidential elections in Afghanistan will be held in April 2014, and there too the country’s future is uncertain. Hamid Karzai, the embattled president, has almost reached the end of his second term in office and is barred from running for a third. He has spent much of the last two years condemning the U.S. military, Special Operations Forces in particular, for their role in Afghan civilian casualties. Nor has the opprobrium been merely verbal or symbolic. American military units now follow a checklist of restrictions knows as the “Karzai 12” that limit the operations they can conduct without receiving explicit exemptions from high-level leadership.
Few people inside the country believe that Karzai’s government or the administration that will take its place in Kabul has the power to govern very far outside the capital. If present-day Afghanistan can be said to resemble any Western political formation, it would be federalism, though even that is a stretch, as the country’s provincial and regional leaders often see the power within their own strongholds sharply curtailed by the warlords, tribal chiefs, and Taliban shadow government that are present almost everywhere to some degree.
A mention of Iraq these days invokes a moral about the United States for many Americans. Iraq as a nation unto itself fails in the popular imagination; it exists now as a lesson to us about ourselves.
We risk reducing Afghanistan, a country still in the grip of war where American soldiers and their NATO and Afghan allies are risking their lives every day, to the same self-serving allegory.