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America Lost in Afghanistan. What Happens Next?

Three lousy options for Afghanistan's future.

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 5:23 PM EST

The Military Monster

These days Kabul resounds with the blasts of suicide bombers, IEDs, and sporadic gunfire. Armed men are everywhere in anonymous uniforms that defy identification. Any man with money can buy a squad of bodyguards, clad in classy camouflage and wraparound shades, and armed with assault weapons. Yet Kabulis, trying to carry on normal lives in the relative safety of the capital, seem to maintain a distance from the war going on in the provinces.

Asked that crucial question—do you think American forces should stay or go?—the Kabulis I talked with tended to answer in a theoretical way, very unlike the visceral response one gets in the countryside, where villages are bombed and civilians killed, or in the makeshift camps for internally displaced people that now crowd the outer fringes of Kabul. (By the time US Marines surged into Taliban-controlled Helmand Province in the south in 2010 to bring counterinsurgency-style protection to the residents there, tens of thousands of them had already moved to those camps in Kabul.) Afghans in the countryside want to be rid of armed men. All of them. Kabulis just want to be secure, and if that means keeping some US troops at Bagram Air Base near the capital, as Afghan and American officials are currently discussing, well, it's nothing to them.

In fact, most Kabulis I spoke to think that's what's going to happen. After all, American officials have been talking for years about keeping permanent bases in Afghanistan (though they avoid the term "permanent" when speaking to the American press), and American military officers now regularly appear on Afghan TV to say, "The United States will never abandon Afghanistan." Afghans reason: Americans would not have spent nearly 12 years fighting in this country if it were not the most strategic place on the planet and absolutely essential to their plans to "push on" Iran and China next. Everybody knows that pushing on other countries is an American specialty.

Besides, Afghans can see with their own eyes that US command centers, including multiple bases in Kabul, and Bagram Air Base, only 30 miles away, are still being expanded and upgraded. Beyond the high walls of the American Embassy compound, they can also see the tall new apartment blocks going up for an expanding staff, even if Washington now claims that staff will be reduced in the years to come.

Why, then, would President Obama announce the drawdown of US troops to perhaps a few thousand special operations forces and advisors, if Washington didn't mean to leave? Afghans have a theory about that, too. It's a ruse, many claim, to encourage all other foreign forces to depart so that the Americans can have everything to themselves. Afghanistan, as they imagine it, is so important that the US, which has fought the longest war in its history there, will be satisfied with nothing less.

I was there to listen, but at times I did mention to Afghans that America's post-9/11 wars and occupations were threatening to break the country. "We just can't afford this war anymore," I said.

Afghans only laugh at that. They've seen the way Americans throw money around. They've seen the way American money corrupted the Afghan government, and many reminded me that American politicians like Afghan ones are bought and sold, and its elections won by money. Americans, they know, are as rich as Croesus and very friendly, though on the whole not very well mannered or honest or smart.

Operation Enduring Presence

More than 11 years later, the tragedy of the American war in Afghanistan is simple enough: it has proven remarkably irrelevant to the lives of the Afghan people—and to American troops as well. Washington has long appeared to be fighting its own war in defense of a form of government and a set of long-discredited government officials that ordinary Afghans would never have chosen for themselves and have no power to replace.

In the early years of the war (2001-2005), George W. Bush's administration was far too distracted planning and launching another war in Iraq to maintain anything but a minimal military presence in Afghanistan—and that mainly outside the capital. Many journalists (including me) criticized Bush for not finishing the war he started there when he had the chance, but today Kabulis look back on that soldierless period of peace and hope with a certain nostalgia. In some quarters, the Bush years have even acquired something like the sheen of a lost Golden Age—compared, that is, to the thoroughgoing militarization of American policy that followed.

So commanding did the US military become in Kabul and Washington that, over the years, it ate the State Department, gobbled up the incompetent bureaucracy of the US Agency for International Development, and established Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the countryside to carry out maniacal "development" projects and throw bales of cash at all the wrong "leaders."

Of course, the military also killed a great many people, both "enemies" and civilians. As in Vietnam, it won the battles, but lost the war. When I asked Afghans from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north how they accounted for the relative peacefulness and stability of their area, the answer seemed self-evident: "Americans didn't come here."

Other consequences, all deleterious, flowed from the militarization of foreign policy. In Afghanistan and the United States, so intimately ensnarled over all these years, the income gap between the rich and everyone else has grown exponentially, in large part because in both countries the rich have made money off war-making, while ordinary citizens have slipped into poverty for lack of jobs and basic services.

Relying on the military, the US neglected the crucial elements of civil life in Afghanistan that make things bearable—like education and health care. Yes, I've heard the repeated claims that, thanks to us, millions of children are now attending school. But for how long? According to UNICEF, in the years 2005-2010, in the whole of Afghanistan only 18% of boys attended high school, and 6% of girls. What kind of report card is that? After 11 years of underfunded work on health care in a country the size of Texas, infant mortality still remains the highest in the world.

By 2014, the defense of Afghanistan will have been handed over to the woeful Afghan National Security Force, also known in military-speak as the "Enduring Presence Force." In that year, for Washington, the American war will be officially over, whether it's actually at an end or not, and it will be up to Afghans to do the enduring.

Here's where that final scenario—collapse—haunts the Kabuli imagination. Economic collapse means joblessness, poverty, hunger, and a great swelling of the ranks of children cadging a living in the streets. Already street children are said to number a million strong in Kabul, and 4 million across the country. Only blocks from the Presidential Palace, they are there in startling numbers selling newspapers, phone cards, toilet paper, or simply begging for small change. Are they the county's future?

And if the state collapses, too? Afghans of a certain age remember well the last time the country was left on its own, after the Soviets departed in 1989, and the US also terminated its covert aid. The mujahideen parties—Islamists all—agreed to take turns ruling the country, but things soon fell apart and they took turns instead lobbing rockets into Kabul, killing tens of thousands of civilians, reducing entire districts to rubble, raiding and raping—until the Taliban came up from the south and put a stop to everything.

Afghan civilians who remember that era hope that this time Karzai will step down as he promises, and that the usual suspects will find ways to maintain traditional power balances, however undemocratic, in something that passes for peace. Afghan civilians are, however, betting that if a collision comes, one-third of those Afghan Security Forces trained at fabulous expense to protect them will fight for the government (whoever that may be), one-third will fight for the opposition, and one-third will simply desert and go home. That sounds almost like a plan.

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan 2006) and more recently War Is Not Over When It's Over (Metropolitan 2010). She wants to acknowledge the courage and determination of all her friends in Afghanistan, especially the women, and the men who stand beside them.

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