On October 7, the war in Afghanistan turns eight.  Eight years after Pearl Harbor, Germany, Japan and Italy had democratic governments and the Marshall Plan was rebuilding the economy of Europe.  Eight years after World War I broke out, the League of Nations was two years old and Germany was being governed by the Weimar Republic.  And eight years after Fort Sumter sparked the Civil War, the country had been reunited.  Not always ideal resolutions, but resolutions nonetheless.

Eight years after we began the war in Afghanistan, not only have the issues that precipitated the war not been resolved, but we’re still arguing about our goals.  What are we trying to accomplish?  What would success look like?  What’s our exit strategy?  When can we go home?

President Obama says it will be when Al Qaeda has been dismantled and defeated.  Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum says the war will be won when “a minimally acceptable government [is] in place.”  The administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, says only that “We’ll know it when we see it.”

None of those conditions seem at all close.  Even the kinds of measures needed to achieve such goals are barely on the horizon.  “An April U.S. intelligence estimate found that the Afghan army will need to grow to 325,000 men to be effective,” the New Republic has reported.  “Given the illiteracy and corruption hobbling the Afghan army, that target could be many be many years and billions of dollars away.”

Is it possible that there is not only no Afghanistan exit strategy, but no exit at all–no circumstances on or just over the horizon under which we could truthfully say “Mission accomplished” and leave?

A seemingly ill-assorted pair of co-authors, Joseph and Kyle Nevins, father and son, the former a medical school professor and the latter a staffer for U.S. House Republican whip Eric Cantor, have suggested a different way of thinking about the Afghanistan war.  “To use an analogy from medical practice,” they write, “we are fighting a chronic disease — one with little hope of eradication.”

In this way of thinking about it, Afghanistan isn’t like a heart malfunction, which will respond definitively to treatment.  It’s more like diabetes, high blood pressure or arthritis.  Treated properly, its effects can be limited.  You will never be cured, never be arthritis-free, but you can learn to live with it.

The chronicity of the war in Afghanistan lies in a combination of the virulence of the forces we’re facing and the inhospitable environment the country presents to the kinds of measures that would seem to be required to achieve our objectives.  The Taliban and Al Qaeda and other manifestations of Muslim extremism are neither insubstantial nor shallow-rooted.  Remember, we overthrew the Taliban government of Afghanistan soon after the war began in 2001.  We seem to have had bin Laden cornered at Tora Bora, but have been unable to get close again.  The fact that there has not been an attack on the American mainland on the scale of 9/11 implies that we have had some tactical success in fighting these adversaries.  But their persistence in the face of everything we have thrown at them, and in the face of their reputed unpopularity within the Afghan populace, suggests that the anger and resentment on which they batten burns hot enough to fuel their survival.

Could their supporters, even some of their leaders, be bribed or incentivized to switch allegiances from the black hats to the—not white, but dark gray hats?  Perhaps.  It seems to have worked in Iraq—at least for a while, at least while American troops are there to execute the strategy.  But to borrow a metaphor once used to explain the re-ignition of ethnic hostilities in the Balkans after the death of Tito, you can suppress weeds by laying a cement slab over the ground where they grow, but once the slab is removed, the weeds will return.  The multi-ethnic country that was Yugoslavia fractured and fragmented soon after Tito died.  And the cock-pit of ethnic rivalry that is Bosnia, only the presence of NATO peacekeepers prevents open warfare in Bosnia, fourteen years after the Dayton Peace Accord.  (Which, by the way, was—what’s the right word?  Negotiated?  Muscled through?—by Richard Holbrooke, now the U.S.’s man in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

And Bosnia had a history of being governed, or at least ruled, by some recognizable kind of centralized governmental authority.  You can’t say that about Afghanistan.

I’ve written before about Rory Stewart, the British sometime diplomat who, in his private capacity, walked across Afghanistan and chronicled his experiences in a very good book, The Places In Between.  For about a year after we defeated the Taliban the first time, he walked, dressed in native garb, from village to village, almost all of them teetering on the edge of subsistence, and from tribal jurisdiction to tribal jurisdiction. Sometimes he was welcomed, sometimes tolerated, sometimes sent brusquely on his way, and sometimes threatened. Sometimes the letters of introduction he carried from contacts in Kabul were useful, often not. To many of the people he encountered and the places he passed through—the “places in between” of the title—the central government in Kabul seemed irrelevant; to some people and in some places, the central authority was all but unknown.

It was not—is not—fertile soil for the establishment of a politically and economically integrated nation, centrally governed, and connected by well-built and well-maintained infrastructure, much less the kind of proto-democracy the west has tried to install in Afghanistan. The determination of the Taliban to retake control from the west as it retook control from the Soviet Union hasn’t helped. Neither has the diversion of American attention and assets to the war in Iraq.

Is this a land where we see Anne Applebaum’s “minimally acceptable government” taking root in five or ten years?  Is this a land whose government we might anticipate dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and keeping them under control for five or ten years, especially without the long-term presence of American military and civil force?

If not, then why not follow the example of those other erstwhile super powers, Britain and the Soviet Union, and throw up our hands and leave?  Haven’t we done enough for Afghanistan?  We abetted them in their fight to resist and evict the Soviets.  We kicked the Taliban out of power.  We have invested who knows how many billions of military and reconstruction dollars, only to see huge wads of it squandered in incompetence and corruption.  So why not leave Afghanistan to its own devices?

Because Obama is right: Unlike Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity.  It was not by accident that the forces that attacked us sought shelter in Afghanistan.  It was the sea in which they swam, the environment in which they could survive.  If ordinary Afghans have no intrinsic allegiance to the Taliban, they have even less to us.  It is unimaginable that whatever regime might take control after we leave would be more hostile to them and more friendly to us than the one that now rules, the one that we helped to install and maintain in power.  Remember that even next door in Pakistan, a country far more cohesive than Afghanistan, Pervez Musharraf had a modus vivendi with the Taliban until the U.S. made him choose between them and us after 9/11.

So are we doomed to the never-ending expenditure of American lives and billions of dollars fighting a war in Afghanistan that we cannot win and cannot risk losing?  Not necessarily.

In the first place, if we come to see Afghanistan as a chronic war, our strategy and tactics will change.  “Our goal,” write the Nevinses, would “be to control the threat even if it cannot be eliminated.”  The measures that are required to carry out combat missions aimed at defeating our adversaries may be different than those appropriate to keeping them from attacking us.  A less battle-focused strategy may cost fewer American and other foreign lives and less money.

More importantly, however, unlike chronic health conditions, countries evolve, sometimes in good directions, often thanks in part to help from the U.S., The Philippines were a colony, then a democracy, then an autocracy, and today a democracy again.  The countries that once made up the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in Eastern Europe have taken their own directions since the Soviet collapse, lightening the burden we carried of defending ourselves against them.

But while help from us can support such evolutionary change, as it did, for example in Poland, the direction that change takes is determined by each country’s or region’s imperatives, not ours.  And it proceeds according to its own timetable, not ours.

In the meantime, we can live with Afghanistan.


  1. Jay
    September 24th, 2009 | 6:11 am

    WWII was an event, the Civil War was an event. Afghanistan is a process, with no clear goal or strategy for continued implementation, execution or termination.

    It is a greater abyss than Iraq.

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