War Stories

Diminishing Returns

Our efforts in Afghanistan were probably doomed from the start. But now it’s over.

An American soldier instructs member sof the Afghan National Army.

A U.S. soldier instructs Afghan soldiers in Kandahar Province on Sept. 10

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.

The latest news from Afghanistan only underscores what’s been clear for quite some time: that there is no light at the end of the tunnel in this war, no noble way out, not much point to staying in.

In the 11 years we’ve been fighting there, our official war aims have been ratcheted down to adjust for what’s possible, and now it seems even the minimal goals may have slipped out of reach.

At the start, President George W. Bush envisioned not only ousting the Taliban but transforming Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy. President Obama discarded that fantasy for the more practical objective of dismantling al-Qaida, degrading the Taliban, and training the Afghan army.

But Obama was also persuaded by his top advisers that the best way to do this would be through a counterinsurgency strategy. That would mean not only fighting the Taliban militarily but boosting the Afghan government politically: helping it provide basic services to the Afghan people, thus gaining their loyalty and undermining their support for the Taliban. In short, it would mean nation building.

That was the rationale for Obama’s decision, in December 2009, to deploy 33,000 more American troops, beyond the 68,000 already there (21,000 of whom he’d agreed to send six months earlier). Eighteen months later, in June 2011, he decided nation building wasn’t working and probably never would work, so he announced that all 33,000 of those extra troops would be pulled out—and not replaced with a new rotation—by the following summer. (The last of those troops left this week.) By good fortune, a month before this announcement, he’d ordered a team of SEALs to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, severely weakening al-Qaida. Meanwhile, the Taliban were weakened on certain fronts as a fighting force, and the Afghan army was performing a bit better. So Obama was able to present his decision as the product of success. And it was a success, under his newly defined standard; but if all he’d ever meant to do was to kill bin Laden, slightly push back the Taliban, and push up the Afghan army, he wouldn’t have needed all those extra troops from the outset.

Now, though, even this measure of success seems unsustainable. Two big pieces of news this week tell the story. First, the U.S.-led coalition announced that it was sharply curtailing joint operations with Afghan army and police forces. Specifically, there will be no more joint patrols—or any other interaction—at the level of battalion or below (a U.S. battalion has 800troops, an Afghan one about 400) without the approval of a two-star general. (Since nearly all patrols are conducted by units smaller than a battalion, the edict applies, in effect, to nearly all patrols.)

The reason for this ban was obvious. There’s been an outbreak of “green-on-blue” killings—Afghan soldiers murdering their American advisers. More than 50 coalition troops have been killed in this manner this year, about one-sixth the number of total fatalities. The problem isn’t just the deaths. It’s that training and joint patrolling require trust, and if the American trainers have to worry about not just the enemy they’re pursuing but the “partners” they’re training, trust vanishes.

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.