The Taliban, according to a cover story in Time on July 29, ordered the nose of 19-year-old Bibi Aisha cut off to punish her for fleeing her husband’s family, where she was being abused. Later they shot 10 aid workers and stoned to death a young couple who had eloped. If NATO leaves Afghanistan, many tell us, such atrocities will continue. But Aisha’s husband, not the Taliban, cut off her nose; and the almost 100,000 foreign troops have failed to reform brutal tribal customs during the nine years they have fought there.
Meanwhile, civilian casualties rise. The U.S. policy is to avoid killing civilians, even at risk to our troops; but recent reports of 52 people, mainly women and children, killed in the Helmand province—condemned as “morally and humanly unacceptable” by President Hamid Karzai—and another 32 a week later, demonstrate that drones and rockets fail to distinguish sufficiently between the enemy and the innocent. According to U.N. reports, in 2009 the great majority of the 2,412 civilian victims were killed by insurgents; 596 were killed by the United States, mostly by air strikes. Nevertheless, local polls show that Afghans, particularly in the villages, blame the foreigners for civilian deaths.
Each week the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam become more vivid: the corrupt America-sponsored government; our troops bogged down in a hostile culture and terrain; our military leadership plugged into its “can do” philosophy; our domestic economy stretched to the breaking point; a public uninformed and unconvinced of the war’s necessity; and a president stuck with a premature decision to fight and determined not to become, in Richard Nixon’s words, “the first president to lose a war.”
Americans must face the fact that we cannot control the world. Given the current burdens on our military and our economic problems, we cannot remake a nation in our image.
Afghanistan will attempt a congressional election in September, and President Obama will re-evaluate our strategy in December. The consensus is growing that he should spell out an exit strategy. Gen. David Petraeus told President Obama last November that if political conditions did not improve in 18 months he would not suggest we stay longer. Mr. Obama should hold him to that commitment.
That we are in Afghanistan fighting Al Qaeda to prevent another 9/11 is a delusion. None of the culprits in the terrorist attacks that day were Afghans. Today Al Qaeda membership in Afghanistan is estimated to be below 100. If we stay longer, we may kill more Taliban leaders; but there is a high probability that younger and more radical people will replace them.
We should focus on negotiating a way out, with an exit strategy that involves every country with a stake in Afghanistan’s future—including Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Iran—with the understanding that no neighboring state may dominate. It should require a plan to administer the development of the $1 trillion in un-mined mineral deposits—iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium—which, if the wealth is equitably distributed, could benefit the whole nation. Afghanistan, once a stop on the Silk Road, could become a land bridge joining Central Asia, South Asia and the Persian Gulf.
The United States prides itself that it has stimulated some social progress in Afghanistan: growth in school attendance, especially by girls; wider health care; and more radio and television stations, cell phones and Internet users. But Afghanistan’s needs demand an international humanitarian solution, not a military one. We must ask whether those minor advances are enough on balance to justify the costs and risks of becoming in effect a permanent presence in “the graveyard of empires.”
Peace will call for compromises. President Karzai is already trying to bargain with non-Al Qaeda factions in the Taliban and may cede to them dominance in certain areas. To assert his own authority, he has ordered the phasing out of all private security companies, foreign and domestic, within four months. The September elections are an opportunity to start talking about how power will be distributed in the new Afghanistan as we withdraw.
The Obama administration is already engaged in talks with Afghanistan’s neighbors. The challenge is to convince key countries—particularly India, which has already invested in Afghanistan; Pakistan, which is tempted to prefer a weak neighbor; and Iran, which may rather keep America bogged down in an endless expedition—that a neutral and stable Afghanistan is better for all. This is difficult, but we must try. Obama should stress that our 2011 departure is a commitment, not a mere gesture. Our soldiers have done their heroic best. We have wounds to heal. We will honor our troops by bringing them home.