Reports about Richard Holbrooke's "last words" reminded everyone of our dilemma in Afghanistan, a war now approaching its 10th year. What the deterioration of the status of our puppet government there, the resurgence of the Taliban (and the heroin poppy growers), and our 30,000 troop surge beginning in 2009, have shown, is that there is no horizon for "victory" in Afghanistan. The country is not manageable along traditional lines of enforcement radiating from a centralized power structure, and we have discovered, as the Russians before us did, that there is no permanent status of stability which can be sustained without our continued vigilant presence. Public opinion, which had originally supported our first invasion, unseating the corrupt regime there as a home base for Al Qaeda, has turned sharply against the Afghanistan adventure.
In the years since, it has become apparent that our original motivation for invading Afghanistan, well-meaning (though laced with revenge and recrimination) though it was, was not well-thought out, and no one in our foreign affairs divisions had addressed the question of the viability of a "western style" administration of that country. It's clear that's never going to happen. In addition, our ambiguous relationship with Pakistan has become increasingly problematic, as the so-called "tribal regions" continue to function as a home base for Muslim radical factions. It's now clear, too, that support amongst the general populace of both these countries cannot be counted on, in the absence of direct military presence.
The U.S. doesn't have the resources to maintain an active occupation force in Afghanistan. Our coffers are empty. Without the promise of an integrated central government there, friendly to our interests, we have to choose between continued military attrition, and allowing the inevitable to occur. Whether we leave this year, or in 2014, or in 2020, there is no evidence whatsoever to support an expectation that when we do leave, the situation will be any more likely to turn out the way we wish. It's simply not going to happen.
As in Vietnam, it's clear that whatever the general populace may believe, it doesn't possess the means to prevent forces within its own culture (society) from expressing themselves, probably in ways that we abhor. Vietnam is today a unified country, with which we have normalized relations. But that wasn't why we left Vietnam. We left because we were exhausted.
The same circumstance now obtains in Afghanistan. Holbrooke, in his "deathbed" told the physician that we needed to end the war in Afghanistan. Despite being a "hawk" about our campaign there, during his tenure as special envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, he understood the futility of our continued presence. Ironically, as the author of one volume of the Pentagon Papers, Holbrooke seems to have waited until the last moment of his life to reveal his true feelings about the conflicts he'd been hired to analyze and publicly serve as apologist for. I was repeatedly frustrated by his covering arguments in favor of indefinite military occupation over the years. How could anyone, I wondered, support an action which obviously was no longer in our long-term interests? Well, it turns out he apparently didn't support it, at least privately.
It's high time we acknowledged what everyone now privately believes: Afghanistan isn't going democratic in the foreseeable future, and the sooner we stop pretending that it will, the sooner we'll decide to stop sacrificing our young men and women (and our shrinking "treasure") to pursue an empty dream.