The war in Afghanistan is over. The Taliban know it, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai does, too. Pakistan knows. With their endorsement of talks
with the Taliban, even President Obama and his generals have acknowledged it. Don’t expect any ticker-tape parades for returning soldiers, though. They’re not coming home anytime soon.
In case you were keeping score, everyone lost. The Taliban’s dream of a 12th-century theocracy has been washed away by a flood of cellphone networks, television and radio stations, computers, and a powerful class of “businessmen” who are happy to use the Taliban as protection but have no interest in their vision of the past as future.
Karzai and his cadre of corrupt cronies are losers, too. The smart ones will leave quickly and quietly with as much of their ill-gotten gains as possible. Those who hang around will eventually end up, well, hanging around—from trees, traffic signals, and makeshift gallows.
Pakistan is finally experiencing “creator’s remorse” for the Taliban, who, with their al-Qaeda allies, now pose a greater threat to Pakistan than to Afghanistan. Pakistan has things worth taking: nuclear weapons, an army and air force, and a semi-functioning infrastructure. The millions of angry, poor, and ignorant Pakistanis are tinder for the Taliban’s purifying fire. Pakistan loses, too.
The US and NATO lost. Shortly after we leave, Afghanistan will be the same unstable terrorist Petri dish that it was when we arrived. Our thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars will have accomplished nothing, except to give Afghans another would-be conqueror to hate. It almost goes without saying that the Afghans lost. What’s left after you destroy rubble? While Afghanistan’s record of never having lost a war is well known, it is also true that it's never won one.
So why continue to spend American lives and treasure if the war is over? Afghanistan offers a launch point for a military strike in Pakistan, when it falls to fundamentalists, or Iran, if it succeeds in developing nuclear weapons. The much-hyped summer offensives in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, along with increasing drone attacks and special forces missions against Taliban “leaders,” have nothing to do with turning the tide in Afghanistan—they are simply on-the-job training for the coming wars in Pakistan and Iran.
It’s not hard to see why Obama and his neo-Kissingerian advisers are worried. Pakistan is one free and fair election (or military coup) away from being run by fundamentalists. Iran’s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believes that the “hidden Imam,” a Messianic figure in Shia Islam, is due to return any day now and usher in Armageddon—and he behaves with the abandon of a man who knows the end of the world is near. The threats are real. Unfortunately, our response to them will make them more likely to occur, not less. Our military presence in Afghanistan is driving Pakistan further into the arms of the fundamentalists and turbo-charging Ahmadinejad’s delusions.
Meet the new war, same as the old war.
Stephen Spain spent five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, working for the United Nations and Save the Children in Herat, Islamabad, Jalabad, Kandahar and Quetta.
In simpler times, our wars had clearly defined endings. WWII ended with a bang—two, really, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were obvious winners and losers, too. The winners redrew world maps, while the losers tried to find creative uses for rubble. It doesn’t work that way anymore.