From Dexter Filkins’s sobering New Yorker assessment of the prospects for Afghanistan after the American withdrawal in 2014.
After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.
American soldiers and diplomats are engaged in a campaign of what amounts to strategic triage: muster enough Afghan soldiers and policemen to take over a fight that the United States and its allies could not win and hand it off to whatever sort of Afghan state exists, warts and all. “Change the place?” Douglas Ollivant, a former counterinsurgency adviser to American forces in Afghanistan, said. “It appears we’re just trying to get out and avoid catastrophe.”
It may be that American officers, after eleven years of doing almost everything themselves, have created such a sense of dependency in the Afghan government and military that they must now see if their charges will stand on their own. And maybe they will. But the American strategy appears to be an enormous gamble, propelled by a sense of political and economic fatigue. The preparedness of the Afghan Army is only one of the many challenges that are being left unresolved: the Afghan kleptocracy, fuelled by American money and presided over by Hamid Karzai, is being given what amounts to a pass; and the safe havens in Pakistan which allow Taliban leaders and foot soldiers an almost unlimited ability to rest and plan remain open. After so many years, this is it. There is no Plan B. “I think it will be close,” a senior American diplomat told me in Kabul. “I think it can be done.”
Oh yeah? The Americans have discovered what every other Western government that tried to control Afghanistan has learned. It can’t be done. The funny thing is that the Brits could have told them. They tried — and failed — umpteen times between 1849 and 1947.