After ten years, we have forgotten why we went into Afghanistan in the first place: a) to deny Islamic radicals similar bases from which to attack the U.S. in 9/11 style, who had been hosted by the terrorist-friendly Taliban “government”; b) to stay on and establish a consensual government to avoid resurgence of the Taliban-friendly radicals, in a de facto admission that our aid to Afghan Islamic radicals in the 1980s to defeat the Russians had been followed by a thought-to-be unwise departure after the Soviet defeat, ceding, in blowback style, the country to the Taliban; and c) at some point after our defeat of the Taliban and the establishment of the Karzai government, a third rationale emerged that we were now supporting “democracy” to ensure an end to the humanitarian abuses under the Taliban.
By 2005 the war and its aftermath were felt to be a general success in that two of our three goals were largely met; indeed, in those days, in contrast to the present, observers looked at the escalating violence in Iraq and wondered “where was the Iraqi Karzai?,” who was feted as a near-hero as American casualties were remarkably low and the Taliban stayed in disarray. There was never a real anti-war movement against Afghanistan.
Then the war returned in force in 2008 onward, and gradually became a campaign theme that year as it morphed into the “good” conflict that Democratic presidential candidates, eager to prove their national-security fides, wanted to wage — in contrast to the “take our eye off the ball war” in Iraq that was optional and not U.N.-approved. Remember, that such “let me at them” bluster was not all that sincere, given that Afghanistan was relatively quiet and Iraq deemed “lost.” (How odd the good/bad war narrative, given that the landlocked, mountainous, tribal, largely illiterate, resource-poor, and drug-rich Afghanistan was always the more difficult proposition than Iraq).
By the time of the election of Barack Obama, things were not what were earlier anticipated: Iraq could be wound down according to the Bush-Petraeus withdrawal plan without need to honor earlier Obama pledges to get troops out by 2008–9; while the good war was suddenly and unexpectedly exploding, in a way that it was not supposed to. Given the previous narrative, had we now not been putting our proverbial eye back on the ball, with the wind-down and quiet in Iraq? (How could Americans victorious in Iraq lose the momentum after turning their full attention to the Taliban who were losing in Afghanistan and their al-Qaeda supporters who had clearly lost in Iraq?)
Now, even before the latest disaster, there is no public support for staying in Afghanistan. And yet to leave is to envision choppers on the embassy roof, Vietnam-style, as the Taliban lets loose on women, liberals, and the American supporters in the larger cities. Not only would their take-over question the sacrifices of hundreds of dead Americans, but of course doom a few millions to the Dark Ages, if not the Islamic version of reeducation camps and firing squads. We should expect millions fleeing to the surrounding borders, the resurgence of the old Northern Alliance, hundreds of thousands coming to the U.S. as refugees — and soon popular unhappiness with the murderous 7th-century Taliban as the wretched cycle started all over again.
What then to do?
The president should either put Afghanistan on the front burner, quit apologizing, seek diplomatic and military continuity, spell out to the people exactly what our aims and methods are, assume the role of commander-in-chief, cease all talk of withdrawal, and define, as it could be defined, “victory” — or simply get out, declare a teleprompted hope-and-change-style victory, and not put Americans in harm’s way in a war that was more a 2008 campaign trope than a serious conflict to be won, as Americans joined the Russians, the British, and the Macedonians who all decided that short-term victory, occupation, and reform cost too much, given what might be gained in Afghanistan.