What's our end game in Afghanistan?

The United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan. Are we willing to lose it? Evidently not quite yet.

The White House’s interim Afghanistan policy review, released December 16, forecasts a political straddle by President Barack Obama. The 2,500-word report is artfully silent on the bad news in the government’s own intelligence assessments and carefully upbeat about the current troop surge. Newspaper stories and informed observers in the region consistently deliver the same bad news. During his 2009 assessment of the war, the president—skeptical of Pentagon promises that a surge would turn the tide—ordered this review along with a troop drawdown next July. Obama was right to be skeptical. Is he still skeptical?

The immediate effect of the surge was to energize the enemy and broaden hostilities. Rather than face the concentrated power of U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, insurgents have moved north to more tranquil areas, threatening tribal leaders and intimidating the local population. At the same time, the spoils of war—contracts, payoffs, bribery, and drug trafficking—have grown in proportion to the increase in troops. The surge has made the war more profitable for everyone: U.S. contractors, Taliban drug dealers, Afghan officials, and Pakistan’s military—everyone except the soldiers who fight the war and the Afghan civilians who suffer from it. 

The policy review names Al Qaeda as America’s number-one enemy, but in Afghanistan the pickings are slim. In 2001, Osama bin Laden and company escaped to Pakistan, where U.S. drone attacks are reported to have degraded their capabilities. Yet even a vestigial presence, or perhaps the memory of a presence, rouses tribal and religious insurgents to see NATO and U.S. troops as an occupying force. Whatever Al Qaeda’s current influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its worldview has gone viral. It no longer needs the protection of the Taliban to provoke terrorist plots—as recent events in the United States and Europe show. Al Qaeda has moved on from 9/11, while the United States remains trapped in Afghanistan.

The report’s emphasis on Pakistan and its cursory treatment of Afghanistan underlines the shift to a multifaceted Af-Pak theater of war. The undefined border area shared by Pakistan and Afghanistan has never been governed, not by the two countries nor by the British who preceded them. Rather, tribal law and shifting alliances rule: the perfect seedbed for willing warriors and a new generation of mujahideen. George W. Bush’s “war on terror” has become a war against local insurgents, a war prosecuted openly in Afghanistan and more surreptitiously in Pakistan. But without Al Qaeda, exactly what is this war all about?

The United States wants to create a central government in Afghanistan and turn the country over to a national army and police; those forces are currently in training, but desertion rates are high. In short, we are nation-building. Yet, the country’s rival ethnic and tribal groups have never looked to Kabul for governance—or protection. These regional forces conduct their own wars both with and against each other, and, as necessary, against invaders—first the British, then the Russians, and now the United States. President Hamid Karzai’s wobbly governance, erratic behavior, and conflicting statements hardly inspire confidence in this tribal culture. That didn’t stop Vice President Joe Biden from recently promising Karzai that “we are not leaving if you don’t want us to leave.” Achieving the U.S. goal—a modern state—appears wildly improbable.

On the other side of the ungovernable border, there is a real state. Pakistan not only controls the means of violence, it perpetrates a good deal of it—in Kashmir, in India, and in Afghanistan itself. With a weak civilian government, the military and intelligence services play a double game, soliciting U.S. aid in the fight against terrorism while deploying the terrorists it has long sheltered in its struggle against India. Those terrorist allies also play a double game as they periodically morph into domestic insurgents. The government totters between military rule and mullah rule—or probably some unholy combination of the two. Pakistan has been shrewd in its dealings with the United States, seeming to acquiesce in cooperating with our policies while steadily pursuing its own interests, including keeping the Taliban on the hook for future service in Afghanistan.

Yet it is not those facts on the ground in Af-Pak that count as much as the facts on the ground in Washington. The president is poised between Democrats eager to end the war and Republicans ready to pounce if he does. That political reality is reflected in the December review. How long can Obama straddle the divide?

For more of Commonweal's coverage of Afghanistan, click here

Further reading: Whistling Past the Graveyard, by FB Ali
Intelligence Reports Offer Dim View of Afghan War, by Elisabeth Bumiller
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Second Edition and Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid
Obama's Wars, by Bob Woodward

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Ms Steinfels' heart is in the right place, but she ends up describing this third or fourth act of an American tragedy by describing the players on the stage as if they were not all directed by directors and producers in Israel and in the Lobby.

For instance, she ends the piece by pretending to see the war in a tug-of-war between the two parties. But this is sheer nonsense, The entire foreign policy of the USA is steered by Israel. The evidence is clear.

There are in the two parties in congress 535 members. In 2009 90% of these accepted the orders of the Lobby to whitewash the Gaza massacre of 410 children. Gaza was a model act of state terrorism. It is blindness and nonsense to describe violence of the brown Moslems as anything different from COUNTER-TERRORISM,

Do the voices in the wings even influence the stage-acting of the RCC?

I think so.

Mr. Brady: Actually this is about the 10th act in Afghanistan.

I don't buy your view that Israel steers our whole foreign policy, only the parts within short-range missle distance: Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and of course Egypt.  But not Saudi Arabia (for obvious reason), Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Cuba and all of the rest. It's quite all right to be paranoid about Israeli influence, just don't over do it. I don't think Israel gives a hoot about our policy in Afghanistan.

My dear Lady, you are almost 100% in error, but let's just put a test question to you;

Why were virtually all the neocons so hot and heavy about Afghanistan as soon as Obama got into office? Tell me of a single Zee who is for getting out of the disaster?

I think you ought to give in touch with Stephen Walt and Mondoweiss--and you will soon change your mind!

Israel's major end for the last 60 years has been to 1) demonize all criticism of itself and 2) turn all anxiety in the direction of the Brownies--no matter who.

Read Luntz epic on how to produce a morality play of Good v Evil.

How do you explain the German Lobby's insistence that the deaths in Afghanistan are saving lives in Heidelberg or Oxford or Yale. All three heads of state claimed such panic-making in three months.

One of my friends, a Zionist, claims that the greatest fear for Zees is not Iran, of course, but that the opinion in the USA would undergo a sea change.

And why has the Lobby so obviously corrupted and silenced the RCC if it was not because the RCC itself by a concerted effort could explode the racist propaganda that the Brownies are the cause of the terrorism,

And dont forget for a moment how limited and tilted virtually all media in the USA is.


Whatever is the actual course of events in the Af-Pak region, it seems long overdue to stop referring to it as a "war." Nation-building I can accept; police action I can accept, but war implies a certain small range of outcomes that almost always involve the anticipation that heads of government will be disposed, and their political systems as well, if those do not promise a more stable world partner (as judged by, typical nation-state restraints and lawfulness of some sort.)

It is well to point to the long resistance of Afghan natives to establishment of a national political civility; but one must ask: Who suffers most from the promiscuous national order that results. Afghanistan being home to Al Quida is a real predicament for western society. I'm not aware of the arguments for successful nation-buidling that doesn't involve establishing order and national infrastructures. How does that work in your view?

Bill Mullins

How about if we stop the useless search and destroy missions, pull our forces back and eventually out of the country, and let them flounder  around on their own until some sort of equilibrium comes about. We save $200 billion a year, they don't die from the consequences of our video game war, and the war contractors and profiteers see their income stream dry up entirely. I would even favor a little herbicide on the poppy fields denying those horrific drug profits to the Taliban and other warlords.  

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment