As the end of the war in Afghanistan heaves into view, the time has come to take stock of the conflict and draw certain conclusions from it. The lessons of the Afghan war are legion, but the primary ones are as follows: First, narrowly target military force against enemies who actually threaten national security — and when that mission is accomplished, look for the exit. Second, avoid fighting insurgents whose sources of supplies are difficult to reach. Third, avoid nation-building efforts within civilian populations that are inhospitable to liberal-democratic ideals — and avoid alienating those populations by collaborating with corrupt local rulers and wreaking needless collateral mayhem.
The Bush administration approached Afghanistan wrongly from the start. Failing to foresee a protracted insurgency after the Taliban’s fall, the Pentagon put too few boots on the ground to finish them off. The Iraq War made matters worse by diverting U.S. resources from Afghanistan when they were needed most. Meanwhile, the Taliban have found shelter and supplies in neighboring Pakistan, where the government has so far proven unable — or perhaps unwilling — to suppress Taliban operatives and sympathizers, and where U.S. forces are mostly unauthorized to tread. U.S. forces have failed to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population due to the overall level of bloodshed and incidents like the burning of Korans and a rogue American soldier’s recent killing spree. Ordinary Afghans have been further alienated by the ongoing corruption of President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Afghan army’s failure to fight the Taliban independently or successfully.
None of this means that the U.S. should not have invaded Afghanistan at all; the initial casus belli was virtually unassailable. Al-Qaeda launched the September 11th attacks while based in Afghanistan; the Taliban shielded them from the U.S.; therefore the Taliban had to be overthrown. Yet Afghanistan was rid of most of its Al-Qaeda presence years ago. The ensuing campaign has aimed not only to keep the Taliban out of power, but also to democratize the country; a decade later, neither end is firmly in sight. Afghan policies like the law criminalizing conversion from Islam to any other faith and Afghan tribal courts’ unjust treatment of women bode ill for the flourishing of the tolerance that makes true democracy possible. Government of, by, and for the people is riskiest and least certain of success, and arguably not worth fighting to establish, when the people’s respect for individual freedom is this tenuous.
A Taliban return to power would not necessarily mean the return of Al-Qaeda. The Taliban have fought on long since Al-Qaeda was largely driven from Afghanistan, suggesting that their alliance with the terrorist group was not integral to their rule. Indeed, many Taliban members were reportedly outraged at the position in which they ended up due to the September 11th attacks, which Al-Qaeda executed without the Taliban’s knowledge. Surely, the ensuing decade of war has taught the Taliban how little it pays to harbor groups like Al-Qaeda. This makes it worthwhile to pursue diplomatic efforts to ensure that a re-empowered Taliban would never give Al-Qaeda safe haven again. The U.S. could withdraw and yet still carry out targeted surveillance and counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan to keep Al-Qaeda from rebuilding its Afghan base. That would be more cost-effective than continuing to waste blood and treasure on a militarized nation-building campaign with dubious chances of success. Just as the Communist victory in Vietnam turned out to be quite bearable strategically, a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan would be preferable to seemingly endless war.
Although the initial campaign in Afghanistan was both necessary and justified, the sanguinary democratizing effort that has followed it is not.