The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating Al Qaeda’s leaders—most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn’t about killing Al Qaeda members.
“The Taliban have already taken over in Kandahar! Come out onto the streets and see. There is no government there!” Or so Rangina Hamidi, the American-educated daughter of Kandahar’s mayor, Ghulum Hamidi, warned me in Kabul last month. Her remarks echoed a recent survey of 1,000 men in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. It found that 51 percent would prefer justice to be administered by the Taliban and 59 percent think the Taliban would do a better job of running the economy than the current Afghan government. Rangina gave me her father’s phone number, adding that he answers his own phone.
Terry Glavin, the cofounder of the Canadian-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and a firm supporter of Western intervention in Afghanistan, tells a joke that has made the rounds in Kabul. The United Nations, sick of the corruption that is rife in the Afghan government, demands that Karzai clean things up. “Of course, of course,” Karzai replies.
Since the mega–leak of 90,000 classified intelligence documents to three news organizations, WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has held a follow up press conference and several subsequent interviews, prompting a flurry of counter briefings and reaction from the White House, the Pakistani government, and others. Yet the public, seeking a better understanding of the Afghan situation, is feeling scarcely more enlightened or empowered than they did a week ago.
One truism of counterinsurgency is that securing and winning over the population are the keys to success. So, what do the people of Afghanistan want? In December, ABC and the BBC conducted nationwide polling and discovered that one-third of Afghans said that poverty and unemployment were the biggest challenges confronting them. Another third named rising insecurity and violence. Meanwhile, relatively few Afghans were preoccupied by those issues that many Americans deem to be Afghanistan’s greatest problems.
Naubad, Afghanistan—In a wheat field in northern Afghanistan this spring, beneath the Cretaceous convulsions of the Hindu Kush mountains, a village elder named Ajab Khan shared with me the unsentimental math of his region’s farmers. An acre of wheat, Khan said, yields $400. An acre of opium poppies yields $20,000. The people of his village, Naubad, had grown exclusively poppies until 2004, when the government of Hamid Karzai asked them to stop.
From a policy perspective, I am not sure there is much to say about America’s war in Afghanistan that goes beyond the blindingly obvious. The invasion in 2001 had an intelligible goal—to destroy a regime that had become a kind of condominium between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, cemented in fine medieval style, according to some reports, by a marriage between one of Osama bin Laden’s daughters and one of Mullah Omar’s sons.
Are the basic premises of our current policy in Afghanistan fatally flawed? The fact that I feel compelled to pose this question so soon after the completion of President Obama’s painstaking review reflects the mounting evidence that the results of that policy have fallen far short of expectations. Let’s begin at the beginning, with Marja. The holy trinity of modern counterinsurgency is clear, hold, and build. Coalition forces are stalled at step one.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a 151-page report outlining the increasingly grim situation in Afghanistan. The paper highlighted the Afghan government (and its security services) lack of capability; the enduring challenge of endemic corruption and poor governance; and the Taliban insurgency’s ability to maintain influence—often via intimidation—across broad swaths of the country. These challenges have already undermined U.S. military operations in Marjah, and could threaten the upcoming summer offensive planned for Kandahar, the heart of the Taliban insurgency. The entire U.S.
Shamalzai District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan—The village of Sher Khan Khel sits at 7,221 feet, a few miles from where Zabul Province borders Pakistan. Stone and mudbrick houses dot the barren slopes (there is little that will grow at this altitude). Women wear dresses trimmed with coins and ink tribal tattoos on their faces, while the men are clad in traditional shalwar kameez and turbans. There is no electricity, no cell phone reception, no TV service. When I visited this spring, I asked a few men how far a nearby village was from another. "Two to three hours walking," was the answer.