The Taliban control much of the countryside and dozens of key towns. Casualties among U.S. troops and civilians are soaring. The commanding general of NATO and American forces has been forced to resign. Government corruption is rife.
There is little doubt that the situation in Afghanistan is unravelling. But there is tremendous doubt, in my mind, about what should be done.
This column will be up-front and personal, not a bit detached. My first overseas newspaper stories were filed from the killing fields of Central America and the refugee camps of Southeast Asia, and my last from Iraq, with three decades of civil wars and insurrections between them. I arrived at firm views on all of them – as firm as the view of my closest friends today that it is time for the United States and NATO to get out of Afghanistan.
I know, painfully well, what war looks like. The sheer horror and brutality of it. That part of me wants out.
A 58-percent majority of Americans regard Afghanistan as a lost cause, according to July’s Bloomberg National Poll. Yet each time I edge toward agreeing with them, something happens that stops me cold.
The most recent something, on August 6, was the summary execution of ten doctors, nurses and medical technicians in a remote valley north of Kabul. What matters is not that six of them were American. It is that by every account — apart from the Taliban’s, with its specious assertion that the murdered aid workers were spies – the victims had made extraordinary sacrifices, over an entire adult lifetime in two cases, to bring help to Afghanistan’s sick and poor.
What matters is the blunt, hideous reminder of the stakes in that shattered land. The war isn’t about religion, although the aid workers were Christian and their murderers Muslim. It is about a struggle between civilization and absolute barbarism, about the best that human beings are capable of and the worst, without encumbering labels.
That’s the confrontation we’d be fleeing, if we cede victory to the men who claimed responsibility for the massacre on August 6, as the Taliban did through an official spokesman less than 24 hours later. But in doing so, we wouldn’t escape the war’s consequences.
A GROWING CONSENSUS
There are two lenses through which foreign intervention can be viewed – the moral and the strategic. From both perspectives, the landscape of Afghanistan is marred by inconvenient truths, to borrow Al Gore’s global warming phrase.
This isn’t Vietnam in 1970, where moral contradictions and public disgust eventually drove Washington to abandon the field. A reasonable argument could be made that the Vietcong and their allies in Hanoi were widely seen in their own country as liberators, leading the final battle in a 30-year war to forge a unified nation.
Very few observers, inside or outside of Afghanistan, would confuse the Taliban with an army of liberation.
For the left, which led the opposition to U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, they are a portrait of evil incarnate, characterized by the most extreme form of religious fanaticism, mindless violence against women and children, totalitarian rule and the utter rejection of modern science.
The message was amplified just three days ago, when a young couple were publically stoned to death at the Taliban’s orders in northern Kunduz Province. Their crime was eloping.
For the political right, the Taliban represent the principal threat to worldwide U.S. power, influence and leadership, an extremist anti-Western cabal that gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and served as co-architects of September 11.
If morality alone was the defining measure, it would take unprecedented hypocrisy across the ideological spectrum to justify withdrawal. Yet the right increasingly – and the left overwhelmingly – wants the troops pulled out. The Bloomberg poll found that 48 percent of Republicans believe the war has been irretrievably lost in Afghanistan, along with 71 percent of Democrats.
The calculation couldn’t be simpler. We don’t appear to have accomplished anything in a conflict that has raged for a decade, twice the combined length of U.S. participation in World War One and World War Two. Why go on?
THE ULTIMATE INCONVENIENT TRUTH
The answer is as bluntly pragmatic as the question. Vietnam didn’t matter very much strategically, which is a major reason why it was finally allowed to “fall.” By contrast, Afghanistan sits astride the most volatile and perilous region on the planet.
The first result guaranteed by withdrawal is a resounding Taliban victory, and with it the restoration of worldwide terrorism’s key sanctuary and operational base.
This grim outlook isn’t a product of Pentagon hype or Republican Party paranoia. Everything argues for it: the stated goals of the Taliban; their well-documented links to Al-Qaeda and other armed fundamentalist groups; the rugged terrain, which provides natural shelters that are all but impervious to strikes by bombers, missiles and drones from beyond the Afghan borders.
With long-range weapons as the main (and largely futile) response available to counter the Taliban and its allies, innocent civilian casualties are likely to continue rising while militant extremism flourishes.
The second consequence is written all over the regional map. Afghanistan shares borders, ethnic ties and religion with Pakistan, Iran, the restless western provinces of China and three shaky former Soviet republics. India and the Russian Caucasus lie just beyond the horizon.
They add up to the ultimate inconvenient truth.
Afghanistan is ringed with nations experiencing serious political instability and religious terrorism, several of them established or imminent nuclear states. If a third world war were to break out in the foreseeable future, its spark is most likely to be struck in the Central Asian mountains and steppes that have Kabul at their dead centre. But the effects would surely be global.
Put coldly, foreign intervention could once be treated as an accounting problem. Potential strategic and moral gains were weighed against possible setbacks. The context was immediate and relatively short-term.
We don’t live in that world any more. The madness unleashed in a Taliban-run Afghanistan a decade ago killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States on September 11, 2001. From the very first, the challenge it posed has defied short-term considerations or predictable accounting.
There are signs, most notably in Iran and Iraq, that the pendulum may be slowly swinging against extremism in Central Asia and the Middle East. But the timetable is uncertain and the jury is still out. The realities of the twenty-first century, strategic and moral, present us with a terrible choice.
We can turn our heads on barbarism and pay the price, sooner or later, when the next September 11 explodes. Or we must accept the need, however unpalatable, to fight lengthy wars that may not be winnable – but cannot be lost.
Article by Frank Viviano