The Oil and the Glory

Declare victory, wind down the war, and turn to real interests

Declare victory, wind down the war, and turn to real interests

For around eight months, U.S. forces had a bead on Osama bin Laden in the well-to-do hill resort of Abbottabad, the first sizable town you reach by road when you drive north from the capital of Islamabad. Like other al Qaeda leaders run to ground before him, he had found sanctuary in a comfortable setting well within Pakistan, and not in the rugged no-man’s land near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as most people believed. Yesterday, U.S. forces assaulted the compound where bin Laden was suspected to be hiding, and, as President Barack Obama told us last night, killed him.

The slaying capped almost a decade of a drifting wartime task in which security has worsened in both Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan.The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in order to make war on al Qaeda, but ended up in a fight to keep the Taliban from overrunning Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The question now is whether there is more that the United States can accomplish in Afghanistan or Pakistan. If the answer is yes, what is that more? And if it is no, is it time to wind down?

I emailed a U.S. official on Afghanistan with these questions. He responded that the U.S. can still make progress in the war in Afghanistan, and that Osama’s presence so far in the Pakistani interior discredits the Pakistan government’s claims that al Qaeda was out of reach. The slaying increases "the quiet pressure on the Pakistanis to stop the games that they play," he told me. "Getting genuine cooperation from Pakistan to press the Taliban in Quetta and Karachi and elsewhere would do wonders."

Yet is there genuinely a chance that Pakistan’s InterServices Intelligence directorate will deny sanctuary to the Taliban leadership in Quetta and elsewhere? Likewise, is there a true chance that Pakistan will stop providing serious military support to the Taliban, who yesterday commenced their annual spring offensive? The all-but-certain answer to both questions is no.

For that and other reasons — including that the Taliban have proven brutally effective users of local terror — there has long been serious doubt that the U.S. can stop the Taliban from at minimum returning to a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. Judging by what happened during their previous rise to power during the 1990s, once there, Taliban leaders are likely to end up dominant. Though he often makes noise otherwise, Karzai is at best a caretaker.

We do not know whether the Taliban are actually popular among Afghans, and we won’t know until U.S. forces are out of the equation in Afghanistan. Which leaves Pakistan as the main interest of U.S. policy — Washington does in fact have strategic interest in Pakistan not going south.

So there is a strong argument for facilitating negotiations for the inevitable power-sharing arrangement, and starting the drawdown of U.S. forces.

I followed up with the U.S. official on whether victory of some type is truly possible in Afghanistan at this point. He wrote back:

I’m not suggesting that. "Win" and "victory" are the wrong way to see the outcome here. Likely it will be messy, but there will be the capacity to ensure that it will be possible to manage our main national interests here.

If Afghanistan can recede from our concerns, that will likely be what we can accomplish. All of the vaunted bullshit about what is trying to be done here with respect to government, development, and accountability will fade as quickly as the foreign money runs out. Certainly there will be no patience to continue to support the Afghan military as soon as the rampant corruption that permeates the Afghan military as soon as our backs are turned becomes so patently obvious that Congress and the American people will say, "enough is enough."

Humvees will quickly end up in the junk pile along with the Soviet-supplied gear, and the Afghan military will return to running around in light pick-up trucks.