In 2010, diplomat Richard Holbrooke wrote a secret memo to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the war in Afghanistan. The title was “How Does This Thing End?: In Search of a Policy.” Holbrooke died later that year, Clinton was gone by 2013 and the Trump team has now taken over — mostly pursuing a strategy that had already failed over and over again. The war is in its 16th year and still no one can answer Holbrooke’s question except to say that it seems the policy is merely to avoid defeat — hardly a cause worth dying for.
No one says that, of course. Instead, Vice President Pence in a December visit to Kabul said on behalf of President Trump that “we are here to see this through.” Kabul seems to bring out the bravado in American politicians. They all land, take a helicopter tour or two and then announce that the United States is in for the long haul. Even Barack Obama, who came into office intent on ending U.S. participation, vowed we would stick by Afghanistan until that country could stand on its own. We’re still waiting.
The troubles, the challenges, the perplexities and the sheer absurdities of waging a war — first to give al-Qaeda what it had coming after Sept. 11, 2001, and then to take on the Taliban, which had granted hospitality to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization — are amply, if not brilliantly, laid out by Steve Coll in his new book, “Directorate S.” The title is important, because this book about what we call the Afghanistan war is as much about Pakistan as it is about Afghanistan. Directorate S is the highly secret unit of Pakistan’s vaunted army intelligence sector that seems preoccupied with keeping the war in Afghanistan going.
The Trump administration has had some good instincts when it comes to Afghanistan. It recently reduced aid to Pakistan, maintaining that it should not be rewarded for sheltering the Taliban and, in effect, killing the occasional American. Pakistan cannot be trifled with — it is, after all, a nuclear power — but, as Coll explicates, just for lying it deserves to be slapped.
The other worthwhile instinct the president had was to just get out of Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is a complete waste,” he wrote in 2012. “Time to come home.” Then Trump became president and was kidnapped by who he liked to call his generals. Most of them had served in Afghanistan, none of them are quitters, and a few of them lost buddies or loved ones there. Understandably, they wanted to stay and give the government in Kabul a chance at surviving. There’s little agreement about anything in this area, but there is unanimity on a single point:
If the United States pulls out, the Taliban wins.
No one wants that to happen, yet we have done that before. The United States abandoned Vietnam in 1975, with horrendous consequences for pro-American Vietnamese left behind, but we did what we had to do. We could not win. Similarly, the United States pulled the rug out from Iraqi Kurds following a 1972 agreement to help them establish a homeland. When the shah of adjacent Iran decided to end his provocations with Iraq, he sold out the Kurds and asked the United States to do the same. We complied.
Coll’s book is riveting, not just because on every other page there’s yet another debacle, lie or unimaginable mistake. Initially, there was little appreciation in the United States for Pakistan’s paranoia toward India nor for its willingness to engage in the sort of savagery such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks on Mumbai in 2008 and the murder of scores of people. It’s hard to believe any nation would support the murder of hotel guests and tourists. Pakistan has its challenges, but it’s a moral sewer.
Equally compelling are the letters home from Americans who chose to come to Afghanistan because it’s a country that needs help. It is gratifying and somewhat surprising to learn of the dedication and, often, downright brilliance of these Americans, both military and civilian. Their deaths are frequently foreshadowed, but when they die — sometimes killed by outwardly friendly Afghans for no apparent reason — the mission expounded by Presidents George W. Bush, Obama and now Trump trickles down the drain with the blood of these good men and women.
“We went there with the best of intentions,” then-Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said back in 2012 after one of her constituents had been killed in Kabul at his desk by an Afghan driver. She was right. And now, again for the best of intentions, it is time to get out.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
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