I cannot forget Kayani’s reaction when we enthusiastically explained our plan to build up Afghan forces to 400,000 by 2014. His answer was swift and unequivocal: Don’t do it. “You will fail,” he said. “Then you will leave and that half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan.” We tried to stand our ground, but he would have none of it. He continued, “I don’t believe that the Congress is going to pay $9 billion a year for this 400,000-man force.” He was sure it would eventually collapse and the army’s broken pieces would resort to crime and terrorism to earn their keep.
Kayani’s counsel was that if you want to leave, just leave — we didn’t believe you were going to stay anyway — but don’t do any more damage on your way out. This seemed to be a ubiquitous sentiment across the region. No one bought our argument for sending more troops into Afghanistan, and no one was buying our arguments for leaving. It seemed everyone was getting used to a direction-less America.
How painful then to remember that, for Obama, Afghanistan had started out as the “good war.” A war of necessity that America had to wage to defeat al Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan never harbored terrorists again. Obama’s stance was widely understood at home and abroad to mean that America would do all it could in Afghanistan — commit more money and send more troops — to finish off the Taliban and build a strong democratic state capable of standing up to terrorism.
Four years later, Obama is no longer making the case for the “good war.” Instead, he is fast washing his hands of it. It is a popular position at home, where many Americans, including many who voted for Obama, want nothing more to do with war. They are disillusioned by the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and tired of more than 10 years of fighting. They do not believe war was the right solution to terrorism, and they have stopped putting stock in the scaremongering that the Bush administration used to fuel its foreign policy. There is a growing sense that America has no interests in Afghanistan vital enough to justify a major ground presence.
It was to court public opinion that Obama first embraced the war in Afghanistan. And when public opinion changed, he was quick to declare victory and call the troops back home. His actions from start to finish were guided by politics, and they played well at home. Abroad, however, the stories the United States tells to justify its on-again, off-again approach do not ring true to friend or foe. They know the truth: America is leaving Afghanistan to its own fate. America is leaving even as the demons of regional chaos that first beckoned it there are once again rising to threaten its security.
America has not won this war on the battlefield, nor has the country ended it at the negotiating table. America is just washing its hands of this war. We may hope that the Afghan army the United States is building will hold out longer than the one that the Soviet Union built, but even that may not come to pass. Very likely, the Taliban will win Afghanistan again, and this long, costly war will have been for naught.
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