Our Afghan war has morphed into so many directions, so many causes that it's hard to keep track of why we're over there.
The Americans went in to get bin Laden and his al Qaeda cohorts. They stepped into a civil war. Their mission then expanded to fighting the Taliban. Then it got into nation building with the selection and appointment of a ruler, Karzai. Then it was the democratization of the country and liberation of the Afghan people. Then, when that faltered, we went back to fighting to keep the Talibs at bay and Afghanistan free of al Qaeda.
As a practical matter, al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan. It has a base of command and operations in the Pashtun tribal lands of Pakistan. The Talibs are still around. We keep swatting at them but we can't stop them and never will. The country has turned into a narco-state. The government we installed has become a criminal enterprise. No matter how much we prop up the Afghan army it will never be more viable than the civilian government it serves. The country remains afflicted with the dual cancers of tribalism and warlordism that virtually guarantee perpetual civil war.
Maybe killing bin Laden was enough.
It is our way in the West to wage war with the certain expectation of victory. We want our enemies to surrender. We demand permanent, unequivocal results. We don't know any other way. The way we see it, if we don't win our concept of victory, we lose. There has to be a winner, there has to be a loser. If we can't be the winner that makes us the loser. When you think about it, that's really a curious mentality because it rejects the reality of unwinnable wars like Vietnam or Afghanistan.
To this day our political and military leaders depict the Afghan war as a military war. It's a truly weird military war. We have the enemy hopelessly outnumbered. We have all the technology and firepower. We alone have the drones, the tanks, the artillery, the jet fighters, the attack helicopters and every other whistle and bell. We're holding all four aces in terms of military warfare but we can't defeat our backward, feeble enemy. What does that tell you?
What it tells me is that only one side is fighting our war, the military war. We cannot be defeated militarily and they're not even trying. They're simply not showing up to participate in our war. If they did they'd be obliterated in days, perhaps even hours. That's what happens to peasants with Korean-war vintage rifles who stand up to face 21st century megawarriors. It frustrates the hell out of our soldiers that these guys won't just stand up and let us mow them down. But, if they won't fight our war and if they can't defeat us, why don't they just throw in the towel and go home?
The reason they don't simply give up is because they're winning and they know it. They're winning their war, the political war, and, of the two, the only war that matters. We can't defeat them in their war and we're not even trying. Worse yet, it's probably far too late even if we did want to take them on.
Sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet and admit there's nothing more to be done. We failed to create a valid central government. The very continuation of warlordism puts paid to that objective. Now the Americans are even arming those warlords' ethnic militias. This is where we lost the Afghan war and this is where we lost it irretrievably. The conditions we allowed to take hold reduced our role to merely babysitting the Afghans' unresolved civil war. In other words we're there marking time, treading water, desperately casting about for something, anything that we can dress up to look like victory.
As in Vietnam, we never lost a single battle in the war we alone were fighting, the military war, but never won a single battle in the war we chose not to fight, the decisive one, the political war.
I know. Let's call bin Laden's corpse victory and march away with our heads held high. That's probably the best we're going to manage.