I received a sad missive from a friend who has been working in Kabul as a civilian teacher on behalf of the U.S aid effort on and off for the last 11 years. A staunch believer in the inevitable triumph of democracy over the Taliban and Afghanistan’s brutal warlordism, her hope, it would seem, is running out. “I think we have got another 18 months here, maybe less before all hell breaks loose frankly,” she wrote. “And then if all of Kabul is blown up again in internecine conflict, what did we spend billions on?”
It’s a question that I think most people who spent the better part of the last decade thinking and talking and speculating about Afghanistan are clearly avoiding these days. It’s a practical question and it’s an existential one, too. It’s symbolic: after Iraq, Afghanistan was supposed to be the war in which America had a pure mission. Instead it is where America found its superpower status was a Potemkin Village.
The Washington think tank club has been pretty quiet. the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is like that one cheerleader who refuses to give up the spirit even when the team on the field is getting clobbered to death, recently released this report, aptly entitled “Toward a Successful Outcome in Afghanistan,” led by former commander of U.S forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen, Michele Flournoy and Michael O’Hanlon, based on a recent fact finding mission. This likely means the report is how the military that courted these three Washington insiders inside the countrywants us to think about Afghanistan: forever on the verge of democracy, and only if we hold out for longer, the 2014 elections go off right, women get integrated into the system, our European allies kick in more money and trainers, the Afghan military can perform without us, etc., will things go off as planned. Where they ever got that poll saying Hamid Karzai enjoys 60 to 70 percent approval ratings is beyond us.
Frankly, if what they say is true, that the Afghan Army is now leading 85 percent of its security missions and responsible for 87 percent of the population’s security — 312 out of 400 districts countrywide — then that is a good thing, at least American blood and treasure counts for something. But it would be good to get an independent assessment. After 11 years of the Pentagon spin machine at work, forgive us for wanting a second opinion. Plus, one of the key recommendations to jump out of the CNAS report is to leave behind a “bridging force” of “several thousand” beyond the already reported “enduring force” (estimated 8,000- to 12,000 NATO troops) for “two to three years after 2014… to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.” So what really goes on over there we can’t say with any conviction.
We do know, outside of the Beltway Bubble, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to smile at (even if, as CNAS suggests, the “good news” is not getting through the Western media). The headlines just aren’t good. I opened the paper yesterday to one blaring the worst of tragedies: “Suicide blast kills 10 Afghan children,” plus, the subhead noted, two NATO troops and an Afghan police officer. The children had just been dismissed from school for lunch and were in the way of an attack on a coalition convoy. At the same time, a land mine claimed the lives of seven Afghan civilians – four women, two children and their driver – after driving home from a day of collecting fire wood in the Hills.
This week, the Red Cross was forced to scale back its own operations after a brazen attack in which a staffer was killed, as well two other people and an Afghan guard, at their headquarters in Jalalabad. Other international staff members had to be rescued as the attackers went on a rampage, according to reports. Meanwhile, the Army announced Tuesday that two U.S soldiers, ages 20 and 23, were killed by an IED while serving in Tsamkani, Afghanistan. While tens of thousands of their counterparts will be coming home from college this month, they’ll be coming home in a box. That brings the total to 2,235 U. S killed since the war began.
They say America is war-weary and it is. For good reason. There seems to be no good answers. Leaving the country to the Taliban seems to be a cruel way to go – we are already hearing that the number of attacks on girls’ schools is increasing. And did you hear more women in Afghanistan are in prison for “moral crimes” now than at any point since the Taliban was kicked out of Kabul 11 years ago? The old warlords are eager to re-impose their own brutal control, too. Yet leaving U.S Special Forces in the country to shadow local Afghan security forces in counter-terror operations seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Protests again erupted in Wardak this week with charges that U.S Special Forces played a hand in disappearing and torturing local young men to death, a charge flatly denied by American officials.
There are pockets of hope, however. The front page of The Washington Post Monday featured Farhad Akbari, 33, who in revenge of the death of his mother by the Taliban,has raised a local vigilante force to keep them out of Kolangar, “a quiet farming region” in Logar province. This local milita has kicked the Taliban out of a number of local hamlets and it doesn’t work with the Americans, which might be their secret. Of course, the Americans don’t believe so much in small crusades, do they? My aforementioned friend felt she was part of something much bigger and to hear her angst about the failure of the endeavor is a blow. I’ll take her view from Kabul over the think tankers every time.