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

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.