America's Afghan Mess

Our costly, pointless wars only increase whatever real risk exists.

The White House is upset by the Afghan election. Celebrated at first by Obama on the south lawn as a signal success marking the country's progress on the road to democracy, it now looks like a monkey wrench thrown into the already stuttering engine of our mission there.

The turnout in Taliban-intimidated areas was only about 10 percent. Voter fraud seems to have been endemic. And President Karzai, our wayward protégée, may be further weakened as a result. So Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke flies to Kabul for the umpteenth time and screams at Karzai that he should do an election rerun. Karzai instead bolsters his standing among his own people by thumbing his nose at Washington. At the same time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen decries continued deterioration in the war while calling for the deployment of more American troops beyond those already pledged by Obama. He is seconded by General McChrystal and Secretary Gates. All are now hard at work on a list of 50 performance measures that the administration can manipulate to show that things are improving—no matter what. Meanwhile, our mercenary private security hirelings run amok and we are forced to call on real security personnel to guard the guardians. Ambassador General Eikenberry pronounces himself innocent of any knowledge about the year-round spring break revels next door to the embassy. Earplugs—actual and figurative—now must be standard issue for American diplomats.

All this in what Obama calls "a necessary war" to advance vital national interests. Exactly why that is so remains obscure. Richard Holbrooke, our turbo-charged point man on AfPak, cannot say what the objective is or define success. Before a select audience at the Center for American Progress on August 13, he said, "The specific goal... is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, 'we'll know it when we see it.'" The unwitting reference is to a comment by a Supreme Court Justice in an opinion on a landmark pornography case. How apropos. This is what passes for grand strategy in Washington these days.

In the absence of a convincing answer to these elementary questions of purpose, the growing Afghan fiasco looks to become a tragic farce. Tragic for the United States, tragic for the cause of containing the spread of violent jihadist groups, and tragic for the people of that war-ravaged land. Just as on Iraq, the conclusion that we had to escalate our intervention preceded the assessment of why and how.

Three unspoken premises underlie that judgment. All are dubious. First is the notion that the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda itself are our enemy. Their supposed hostility toward us means that they will lend their active support to terrorists targeting America, and may join in themselves. Second, the implication is that their eradication as a political force in Afghanistan is essential to our national security. Finally, the Taliban must be eliminated across the border in Pakistan, too. In short, a grand project for remaking the political life of two countries where favorable views of the United States are low and sinking (6 percent in Pakistan).

Here is the more complex reality. The Taliban agenda is an Afghan one (or Pakistani one). Their credo and program sets no ambitions beyond its borders. No Taliban member has ever been implicated in actions outside his homeland. Today, their movement is fueled by a Pashtun sectarianism aggrieved by a government In Kabul that is dominated by their traditional Tajik and Uzbek rivals, whom we installed—except for our Mr. Karzai, himself a Pashtun. The Talban's political neutering is therefore an impossibility.

Fellow Pashtuns in Northwest Pakistan are pushed into the Taliban fold by American air strikes that enrage tribes whose members are victims, often innocent ones—as occurred last Thursday near Kunduz in Afghanistan under the new "hearts and minds" strategy. (That strategy is the supposed invention of Stanley McChrystal, who was best known for his term as commander of Camp Cropper where the torture of Iraqis was institutionalized in May 2003). Our prodding of the Pakistani leadership to abandon their policy of containment for one of military intrusions in conjunction with American air strikes has led to unprecedented upheaval that is further destabilizing that country's roiled politics. The Islamabad political elite is no more ready to risk civil war by complying with American demands than is Mr. Karzai to kowtow to Richard Holbrooke at the risk of his political future.

The simple truth is that we do not have the power (hard, soft or half-baked) to transform the minds and behavior of entire peoples with whom we have no affinity and who view us as aliens. Our own self-declared virtue, good intentions and self-interest do not change that one iota. We should have learned that lesson in Iraq. We want absolute security, zero threat from the Middle East. We cannot get it, no matter what we do. Our costly, pointless wars only increase whatever real risk exists.

Our leaders cannot stomach that irritating truth. And if they could, they still don't have the guts to tell it to the American people.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.