NEW YORK — Eight years.
On a beautiful September morning not unlike that day in 2001, I watched the loud, dusty construction site that is Ground Zero waking up.
Cranes stretched across the sky, dump trucks idled and the construction crews yawned in the early morning light where the World Trade Center once stood.
You can’t help but wonder why the hell it's taking so long to build a suitable monument there?
Why is this open wound in the island of Manhattan and the heart of the country not stitched up and healed — at least physically — by now?
And you watch the flag-draped coffins coming off the cargo planes at Dover Air Force Base and the mangled bodies and blown minds of young American servicemen and women coming home to ragged, ill-equipped VA hospitals, and you can’t help but wonder what the hell have we accomplished in Afghanistan? Why is this land, where empires dating back to Genghis Khan have failed to establish rule over the people, still consuming our blood and treasure all these years after 9/11?
Eight years on, and there are no good answers.
Not that would satisfy the cluster of families that will gather here on the anniversary of Sept. 11 to mourn those who they’ve lost. Not that would satisfy most of those who have loved ones still serving in Afghanistan, the place from which the attack on America was authored by Al Qaeda.
This is the truth — as clear as the sky that September morning eight years ago — that faces President Barack Obama at this moment.
Obama inherited a war where the ends are ill-defined and the means are inadequate, a struggle that went too-long neglected under President George W. Bush to think about victory in any conventional military sense.
The task now in Afghanistan is to recognize these facts and resist the military inclination — the instinct of the beast — to draw more and more troops into a doomed conflict.
Obama will need to listen to his Vice President, Joe Biden, who has warned about the dangers of escalating the conflict. He needs to be sure he is not operating out of fear that the far right will bludgeon him as weak or being swayed by generals who while often brilliant and convincing are selling war because it is what they do.
Obama needs to focus on the things the U.S. and its allies can and should accomplish in Afghanistan.
In an election clouded by fraud, the U.S. and the coalition can and should ensure that all allegations are investigated and all improprieties exposed. The U.S. can and should throw its full weight — financial and diplomatic — behind the international monitoring agencies as they push for a recount in which fraudulent ballots are disqualified.
If in the end it is determined that the whole enterprise is too shot through with corruption to be considered legitimate, then Obama will need to find the courage to support calls for a new election — all those opposed, including Karzai, be damned.
Focus on the process, not the result.
The U.S. needs to spend more money on development and increase the number of investigators and auditors who are watching the taxpayers’ money. They need a more aggressive team in place that can ensure the money is going to its intended purposes — to build schools and roads and bridges — and not ending up in the pockets of warlords. And definitely not, as we exposed in a GlobalPost special report, ending up in the pockets of local Taliban thugs running protection rackets and shaking down contractors. Even if a disproportionate sum of millions of dollars are dedicated to establishing an honest process for contracting, it will be worth it in the long run.
The U.S. needs to have the sophistication to understand that the Taliban is not a monolithic force, but a fractured religious movement in which there are local leaders who can easily be brought into the fold through practical dialogue. If we continue on the path of defining all armed insurgents as “the Taliban,” we will surely lose. Increasing American troops on the ground, which General Stanley McChrystal is expected to call for later this month, who continue to operate from these simplistic terms of engagement will serve to alienate the Afghan population, strengthen the resolve of the insurgency and guarantee that the casualty tolls will continue to escalate even higher than they already have. Similarly, increasing the number of Afghan troops is also perilous if they are not well trained and well prepared. We need to make the existing troops better, not add more.
Specifically, we need to more deeply educate the U.S. and coalition field commanders and troops already in country about the rich Afghan culture that is around them and about the religion those who live there proudly profess. And then the U.S. and international forces need to teach those soldiers how to discern within those streams of human life who is an ideological foe and who is a potential friend.
Eight years on from 9/11, America has to be more clear about what it can accomplish in Afghanistan and what it cannot.
Eight years on, we owe it to the 2,976 innocents who died on that September morning and we owe it to the about 5,000 American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the many tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who’ve been killed since in the post-9/11 wars.