To stay or not to stay, that is the question. While President Obama from his encampment at Elsinore on the Potomac continued to agonize over his rotten options in the state of Afghanistan, in a period of just two days U.S. forces there suffered a series of terrible losses in what has been the deadliest month for U.S. Army and Marines since U.S. troops put boots on the ground in 2001: 14 were killed in two helicopter crashes (including for the first time three Drug Enforcement Agency casualties) and eight soldiers were killed in separate roadside bombing and small-arms fire attacks. The grim toll for October 2009 in our eighth year of war in Afghanistan: 58.
Vice President Cheney emerged from his dark tower long enough to accuse the president of “dithering,” but with so many lives on the line most Americans are happy to see actual process and deliberation on matters of such extreme strategic importance. But it is certainly true that the lengthy decision-making process must be hard for service members and their families to bear, particularly as the honor roll ticked higher in October. It could not have come as welcome news to the president that a senior foreign-service officer in the field and two-tour Iraq War veteran Marine Captain Matthew Hoh resigned on Oct. 26 in protest of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the first State Department official to do so. Hoh’s resignation letter spoke a succinct series of hard truths that it can only be hoped will manage to reach the American public. He has learned from work in the field that the so-called Taliban insurgency America is fighting in Afghanistan is essentially an illusion. From Hoh’s real-world perspective the Taliban “insurgency” spoken of so casually in Washington actually breaks down into hundreds of small local resistance groups, people who perceive themselves as fighting not for the Taliban—or an even more distant Al Qaeda—and their ideology of permanent confrontation with the West, but against the attempted occupiers the United States and Afghanistan’s central government. Hoh wrote, “I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war.”
Hoh calls the Karzai administation, in a marvel of understatement, an “unreliable partner” and argues that U.S. presence in Afghanistan is only confirming belief in the countryside of our imperial ambitions. He agrues that our Afghanistan strategy is destabilizing the entire region while achieving little toward its primary goal of protecting the West from the terrorists conspiracies of Islamic maximalists, most of which are now being conducted in the United States and Western Europe.
Hoh has thrown what had been a promising foreign service career away in an effort to get Americans to ask some hard questions about Afghanistan: what are we achieving there? With our nation printing money to pay its bills, can we really afford to maintain an army there (we can ask the Soviet Union how well it managed the feat)? Do we really have the cold-bloodness and patience to stay in this fight for what could be a very long haul?
The president may be seeking some middle road between Vice President Biden’s withdraw and interdict strategy and General McChrystal’s guarded confidence that a repeat surge will bring the Taliban to heel. But it could be that this is no time for Obamian half measures and indecision. The ghost of previous colonial campaigns is haunting U.S. Afghanistan policy. We already know through painful experience that in most nationalist struggles the occupied can outlast the occupier—they are already home—and Afghanistan’s Pashtuns have shown such patience already before a bloodied rogues gallery of previous presumed imperial overlords. The President has simply got to ask himself if the costly and uncertain project of founding and nurturing a nation out of the scattered and hostile tribal communities of Afghanistan is truly the only way to neutralize a potential Al Qaeda threat to the West. If the answer is no, if it is possible that the United States indeed has other effective and practical options, than the U.S. has no business left in Afghanistan save concocting a defensible strategy for extracting ourselves from a costly and unwinnable confrontation.