Recent events surrounding Afghanistan shouldn’t confuse anyone, as the reality of the situation still lies in one simple statement: The US-NATO coalition has lost a war its political leaders never meant, or knew how, to win.
‘Winning’ in Afghanistan was never anything more than killing Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, as many of their fighters and civilian supporters as possible and then getting out immediately with the full knowledge that—as Mao said long ago—insurgencies always rebuild and the process might need to be repeated.
The best and most appropriate response to al-Qaeda’s September 11 raid, then, would have been a unilateral US punitive expedition that inflicted massive death and destruction on the enemy and delivered a clear warning to Islamists not to pick fights with the United States. Indeed, many Islamists expected this response, which is why they poured vitriol on bin Laden and expected the US military to set back their movement a decade, if it did not destroy it completely.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Faced with this criticism, bin Laden simply said ‘wait,’ adding (in paraphrase) that the Americans and their allies can’t stomach casualties, that they won’t use their full military power and will unite Afghans by trying to Westernize them via popular elections, installing women’s rights, dismantling tribalism, introducing secularism and establishing NGO-backed bars and whorehouses in Kabul. Bin Laden was right; it seems he is, among other things, a keen student of the West’s past nation-building operations.
Since June 1, the parade of incompetents crossing the Afghan stage is stunning: Gen. Stanley McChrystal, US President Barack Obama, Gen. David Petraeus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai—the list is long. McChrystal, saddled with a dead-end strategy devised by David Kilcullen, John Nagl and other counterinsurgency ‘experts,’ gave access to himself and his staff to Rolling Stone, long among the most anti-military US journals.
For his trouble and indiscreet words, McChrystal was fired by Obama—who, with his senior advisers, merit all the negative things said about them—and replaced by that purveyor of military snake oil, Gen. Petraeus. Even as the transitory success of the Iraq ‘surge’ is unravelling, Petraeus takes the Afghan command saying everything is okay (within a week the Pentagon’s media machine was telling Congress and Western publics that the ‘Afghan war is on track.’)
While this has played out, Hamid Karzai reportedly met with Sirajuddin Haqqani—a major Afghan insurgent leader—and prepared to surrender under the guise of creating a coalition regime. For all his failures and fabulously corrupt relatives, Karzai can easily solve the dilemma the West can’t even frame accurately: Question: What does the Taliban and its allies want? Answer: Power. So Karzai is talking to Haqqani, and probably Taliban leaders, to see if there’s a governing arrangement that will give him a role in post-NATO Afghanistan and doesn’t lead to his execution after the last NATO trooper leaves. The chance of this is near nil, however, and so Karzai and his family will have to step up the pace of their alleged thievery and get ready for an early exit that leaves the West holding the bag.