Eugene Robinson
Opinion writer June 9, 2011

Slender threads of hope are nice but do not constitute a plan. Nor do they justify continuing to pour American lives and resources into the bottomless pit of Afghanistan.

Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat nominated by President Obama to be the next U.S. ambassador in Kabul, gave a realistic assessment of the war in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here I’m using “realistic” as a synonym for “bleak.”

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section. View Archive

Making progress is hard, Crocker said, but “not impossible.”

Not impossible.

What on earth are we doing? We have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan risking life and limb, at a cost of $10 billion a month, to pursue ill-defined goals whose achievement can be imagined, but just barely?

The hawks tell us that now, more than ever, we must stay the course — that finally, after Obama nearly tripled U.S. troop levels, we are winning. I want to be fair to this argument, so let me quote Crocker’s explanation at length:

“What we’ve seen with the additional forces and the effort to carry the fight into enemy strongholds is, I think, tangible progress in security on the ground in the south and the west. This has to transition — and again, we’re seeing a transition of seven provinces and districts to Afghan control — to sustainable Afghan control. So I think you can already see what we’re trying to do — in province by province, district by district, establish the conditions where the Afghan government can take over and hold ground.”

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy, pointed out the obvious flaw in this province-by-province strategy. “International terrorism — and guerrilla warfare in general — is intrinsically mobile,” he said. “So securing one particular area . . . doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you have reduced the capability of those kinds of forces. They are mobile; they move.”

It would require far more than 100,000 U.S. troops to securely occupy the entire country. As Webb pointed out, this means we can end up “playing whack-a-mole” as the enemy pops back up in areas that have already been pacified.

If our intention, as Crocker said, is to leave behind “governance that is good enough to ensure that the country doesn’t degenerate back into a safe haven for al-Qaeda,” then there are two possibilities: Either we’ll never cross the goal line, or we already have.

According to NATO’s timetable, Afghan forces are supposed to be in charge of the whole country by the end of 2014. Will the deeply corrupt, frustratingly erratic Afghan government be “good enough” three years from now? Will Afghan society have banished the poverty, illiteracy and distrust of central authority that inevitably sap legitimacy from any regime in Kabul? Will the Afghan military, whatever its capabilities, blindly pursue U.S. objectives? Or will the country’s civilian and military leaders determine their self-interest and act accordingly?

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report this week warning that the nearly $19 billion in foreign aid given to Afghanistan during the past decade may, in the end, have little impact. “The unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated,” the report states.

The fact is that in 2014 there will be no guarantees. Perhaps we will believe it incrementally less likely that the Taliban could regain power and invite al-Qaeda back. But that small increment of security does not justify the blood and treasure that we will expend between now and then.

I take a different view. We should declare victory and leave.

We wanted to depose the Taliban regime, and we did. We wanted to install a new government that answers to its constituents at the polls, and we did. We wanted to smash al-Qaeda’s infrastructure of training camps and havens, and we did. We wanted to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and we did.

Even so, say the hawks, we have to stay in Afghanistan because of the dangerous instability across the border in nuclear-armed Pakistan. But does anyone believe the war in Afghanistan has made Pakistan more stable? Perhaps it is useful to have a U.S. military presence in the region. This could be accomplished, however, with a lot fewer than 100,000 troops — and they wouldn’t be scattered across the Afghan countryside, engaged in a dubious attempt at nation-building.

The threat from Afghanistan is gone. Bring the troops home.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com