Conflict & Justice

Twilight for the US in Afghanistan


An Afghan policeman looks at a wounded man and children sitting in the main hospital in Khost city on October 1, 2012. A suicide attack on a joint Afghan-NATO foot patrol killed at least 14 people, including three NATO soldiers and an interpreter, officials said. Four Afghan police and six civilians were also killed, and 37 were wounded in the attack near a market in the eastern city of Khost, the provincial governor's office said.



If you read the US Kabul Embassy press releases, as I do, you get an unintended picture of a mission in torment. “The US Embassy condemns, in the strongest possible terms,” reads a recent release, “the suicide bombing that took place this morning near the Kabul International Airport, killing at least 10 people and injuring several others…” This proves, the embassy said, that the enemy has “no respect for human life.”

The embassy statement sends assurances that “The United States will continue to stand resolutely with our partners as they defend themselves against terrorism and build a more peaceful future.”

I wasn’t privy to Soviet embassy statements from Kabul during the Soviet Union’s decade-long endeavor to bend Afghanistan to its will. But if there were any, I am sure they would have condemned the lack of respect for human life shown by these same Afghan terrorists who were then on America’s payroll killing Russians. And I am sure that the Soviets, too, proclaimed their resolution to stand by their Afghan partners to defend against terrorism and build a more peaceful future in a society reflecting Soviet values. 

I wonder if former ambassador Ryan Crocker, who was locked in a safe room when the American Embassy itself was under attack just a year ago, thought of his 19th century British counterparts, Sir William Macnaghten, and Sir Pierre Cavagnari, envoys murdered in Kabul in 1841 and 1879. They, too, envisioned a more peaceful future for Afghanistan, reflecting their nation’s interests. 

After Cavagnari’s brutal death, Britain sent out new instructions. “The British no longer wanted to dismember or annex Afghanistan, they wanted to hand it over,” writes David Loyn in his book “In Afghanistan, Two Hundred years of British, Russian and American Occupation.” 

Now it is the United States that just wants to hand it over. 

As did the Russians, America, too, came to Kabul with elaborate plans to re-make Afghan society in its image. But then, as it had with other foreign powers in the past, the difficulties of bending Afghans to someone else’s agenda proved to be more difficult than at first perceived. In time, plans for counterinsurgency to win over the Afghan people became "Afghanistan good enough." The lofty ideals for an American occupation were downsized to the more simple longterm goals of keeping Kabul from falling to the Taliban and retaining a residual force in the country to keep an eye on Pakistan and its nukes.

Our Afghan allies have become less and less reliable as the years have gone by, not more as we hoped. 

The Cavagnari mission was destroyed by rebellious Afghan troops who fell upon the British while their emir stood by. Today, roughly one-third of NATO losses in Afghanistan have come from Afghan soldiers and policemen whom we are training to combat terrorism and to build a more peaceful life for Afghanistan.

When I visited Afghanistan in 2003, Afghans did not feel like an occupied people. They were so war–weary that there was a brief moment when they could have accepted foreigners changing their lives. By 2010, however, the resentments of a people under occupation were obvious.

As for the enemy, “they were quarrelsome and confrontational with each other; weakness in conventional war, but qualities that gave them flexibility and unbeatable power in an insurgency. Their disunity generated centrifugal forces that made the country ungovernable and gave them a sinuous strength when they came together.” This is Loyn’s description of Afghan’s opposition to British rule in the 1870s, but it could just as well apply to the Taliban today.

Shortly before he died two years ago, America’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, told me that training the Afghan army and police was our best hope of disengaging from Afghanistan with some modicum of success. He advised me to go see General William Caldwell in Kabul, who was in charge of training our Afghans. I did, and Caldwell told me that his training mission was “our ticket home.” 

But today we read that NATO is suspending joint operations and patrols with the Afghans, and that training has been curtailed lest our Afghans turn on us and kill us. Our ticket home may be still there, but it's looking less and less valid.

Some say that Afghanistan will return to civil war when we leave, the civil war that broke out when the Soviets withdrew. I say that civil war never ended. The Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities that took over Kabul when the Soviet regime crumbled were later defeated by the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group that forced the minorities into a Northern Alliance on the border with Tajikistan. The United States reversed that situation after 9/11 and put the Tajiks back in power in Kabul, forcing the Pashtuns into a southern alliance near the border with Pakistan where they fight on today. 

Our Afghan war has morphed into a war against the Pashtuns, a conflict in which foreign armies have had little success over the centuries. 

Relations with the man we put on Afghanistan’s throne, President Hamid Karzai, go from bad to worse. Afghanistan seethes with deception and betrayal, and so it has always been. As former Emir Yukub Khan, whose rebellious soldiers overran the British compound in 1879, said: “This is Afghanistan. We cannot get on here without practicing deceit.” 

And so the American Embassy puts on the best face it can, doing its duty and hoping for the best. The mirage of Afghanistan "good enough" steadily recedes before us.