As the drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan accelerates, news from the front is rarely the lead, and the tenor of our public discourse on the war is decidedly understated. It brings to mind the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones demands to know what has become of the Ark of the Covenant and is told that “top men” are working on it. Then a cutaway reveals a wooden crate with the Ark being wheeled into a vast warehouse with thousands of identical crates.
These days it is easy to imagine a crate stamped “Afghanistan” on the next pallet. But we owe it to those who have served not to box up the war effort until we are transparent about what we expect to come and explain what it has all meant.
The United States’ stated objective is to ensure a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan that will continue to cooperate with us to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates. This is a worthy goal, but more aspiration than strategy. It is not just that most wars end in messy and unexpected ways, but also that the end-state we identify reflects the least likely outcome.
More than 11 years after we ousted the Taliban, U.S. officials cannot safely meet contacts or drive through much of the vital south and east without threat of roadside bombs. The Afghan government does not have a monopoly of force, does not govern cohesively and is not supported by a self-sustaining economy. None of this will change in the near-term, except we will apply far fewer resources to the problem.
The old trope that “we will stand down as they stand up” should not substitute for more sober assessments of the situation: We are as likely as not to find in the next several years an Afghan state co-opted by our enemies, co-opted by its neighbors, reconstituted as something other than an ally or split by civil war.
Much of this is attributable to the complexities of Afghanistan, yet the problem we created for ourselves after we routed the Taliban is that each aspect of our operations stems from a different rationale.
Due to the sense in our foreign-policy community of a causal link between 9/11 and our neglect of Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, our mission has encompassed, variously: nation-building, humanitarian intervention, interdiction, deterrence and geo-strategic posturing. Each rationale, if privileged, would lead to a different exit strategy, but none that reflects the reality of our rapid drawdown. So we are left with retribution as the most coherent explanation for our war.
To wit: We killed the mastermind of the worst terrorist attack on our homeland, killed or captured many of his operatives and allies and decimated the regime that refused to render him to us. Retribution should not be confused with revenge. It is the age-old concept of proportional justice. This does not invalidate the other things we have done, but properly contextualizes them.
Afghanistan has been transformed in many positive ways by the good works of U.S. soldiers and civilians who have stood “shohna ba shohna” with Afghans for more than a decade. There is representative government, the markets have been revived and a generation of Afghans, including thousands of girls, has been educated. The good news is that Afghans, in full sovereignty, will now decide their future.
But our project to convince them that their government is responsive has been undermined by the perception by many that its benefits accrue mainly to those elites who best know how to work the system. Our partners in Kabul are in a perpetual crisis of legitimacy, which explains why they often blow hot and cold toward us.
Afghans have no love lost for al-Qaida or the Taliban, but local, familial and tribal affiliations are far more durable than their association with the central administration. The prospect of the return of the Taliban or other extremists to government through negotiated settlement, including direct peace talks with the United States, or even by the ballot box, does not inspire their confidence.
If we assess the deterrent value of our presence honestly, there has always been the question of how fighting a hundred thousand strong in the Hindu-Kush prevents men from placing pressure cookers at the finish line of a marathon in Boston. Moreover, from Mali to Syria we find the same variables as in Afghanistan: radicalized elements, ungoverned spaces and abundant, cheap and lethal weapons.
Identifying violent extremists at home and securing our own borders, as well as disrupting extremist networks when they leave contested lands and operate where we live and do business will likely prove more effective than long-term foreign intervention.
Finally realism, in its various iterations, is constrained by this reality: Our presence in Afghanistan is sustained largely by logistics run through Pakistan. In other words, as a forward position in a great powers game, Afghanistan is costly, tenuous and can easily be undermined.
Our country is still animated by great challenges, so our disquiet with Afghanistan as we wind down the longest war in our history is understandable. But as Afghans define their new path, Afghanistan can and should shift from the top of our foreign-policy agenda to a more appropriate role in the scheme of our global engagement.
We will still support those who reliably partnered with us for so long, and interdict if it makes sense, but we can dispense with the hand-wringing over tactics and what we leave behind. It is time to get comfortable with a simple take-away from this complex war: The reach of our justice is far, and we have the will and the means to punish those who do us great wrong.
Dante Paradiso is a career Foreign Service Officer and former task force senior civilian representative in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.