Our efforts in Afghanistan were probably doomed from the start. But now it’s over.
And—here’s the big deal—America’s main mission in Afghanistan now is to train the local army and police, so they can carry on the fight by themselves after the Western troops leave (which, under an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, happens in 2014). If we’re not going to be training them (again, for good reasons), there’s not much reason for U.S. troops to stay there another day, much less another two years.
The second bit of news, reported in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, is that Karzai has fired or reassigned 10 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial governors. Several of them have created fairly effective local governing councils—which is why Karzai fired them: He sees, and always has seen, the rise of local power bases as a threat to his own central authority. In the past, he has replaced such officials with his cronies, who tend to spread corruption, alienating the people and, in many cases, building support for the insurgents.
This pattern helps explain why the war has been all but doomed from the get-go. There was logic behind the counterinsurgency strategy that Obama attempted for 18 months. An insurgency war is, in part, a contest for the loyalty of the people; providing the people with basic services, and thus enhancing the government’s legitimacy, is one way to earn their loyalty. But as many U.S. military leaders, including Gen. David Petraeus, emphasized from the beginning, Karzai would have to clean up his corruption, reform his regime, make it more responsive to his people’s needs, if the strategy were to work. The problem all along is that Karzai has been unwilling to reform—unwilling to clear his swamp of the maladies that the Taliban and other insurgents have been exploiting in their rebellion.
That’s what Obama realized when he decided to pull out all the “surge” forces and retreat to more achievable aims: No matter how many more troops he might send, no matter how long he decided to keep them there, the war was sunk as long as Karzai didn’t change his ways—and there was no sign he was going to change.
The possible demise of the training program threatens to shut down the whole effort. I say “possible” demise because the edict could be reversed, the training could resume, if some way can be found to beef up security. The problem is that most of the green-on-blue killings have not been the work of the Taliban. Spokesmen for the coalition say that insurgent infiltrators have been responsible for only one-quarter—maybe as few as one-tenth—of the killings. Most of the rest have been due to “cultural differences”—young Afghan men, mainly from small villages, unaccustomed to military discipline or offended by what they regard as insensitive behavior on the part of their coalition trainers.
The American military has never been very good at what used to be called “colonial” functions. Its troops don’t speak the language and know only a little about the culture. The same is true, multiplied several-fold, by the Afghans, who feel the additional strain of taking orders from people regarded, even by many anti-Taliban Afghans, as “infidel occupiers.”
It was a bad bet from the beginning. It’s only worsened over time. An exit strategy and timetable were put in place. But now it’s time to speed up the departure.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.