The Way Out of Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai; drawing by John Springs

For the 100,000 American forces, 40,000 NATO troops, and their commander, General David Petraeus, it’s Year One of the Surge in Afghanistan. For many Afghans it’s Year Nine of the US Occupation—or, to be kind, Year Nine of the US-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

US officers say that the war is finally on the right footing, with enough men and equipment to hammer the Taliban in their bases in the south. For US and European diplomats there are larger imponderables. The strategic policy review released by President Obama on December 16 is extremely cautious, noting that recent gains in the south remain “reversible.” The report says the strategy “is setting the conditions” to withdraw a small number of US troops in July 2011, but it does not specify how many of the 100,000 American forces might leave. A Western ambassador posed the problem to me clearly: “Are we creating a sustainable government, are we getting the politics right, will there be an Afghan army and civil service to take over when we leave?”

In Kabul the foreigners breathe a little easier after several months with no suicide attacks. Kabulis say that the protective blast walls and concrete barriers that line the streets are now twenty feet high, suffocating them and eating up their road and living space.

War is always a mixture of different, conflicting stories, depending on whether you are crouching in a ditch or sipping tea at the presidential palace. To have dinner with Petraeus and tea with President Hamid Karzai is a central part of the story, as is journeying to the edge of the city to tiny, unlit, unheated flats to talk to former senior Taliban officials who want to explain to you how the Americans and the Taliban can make peace. Everyone tells you the endgame has started in Afghanistan but nobody can tell you how it will end.

The world is obsessed with the big picture of the Afghan war, not the domestic details that make it so difficult to end. The NATO summit in Lisbon on November 19–20 was a clear example. It tried to clarify the vision of a Western withdrawal but also created confusion. The NATO leaders—speaking for the organization, not the US—said that they planned for a phased transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces and the end of NATO’s combat role by 2014. They were committed to stay after that in a supporting role, while the US warned that its forces would continue fighting beyond that date if the security situation deteriorated. Clearly, the US and NATO are on two different timetables.

To confuse Afghans even further, President Barack Obama also added that some US troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan next July. That date, announced in January 2010 as the US surge began, has proved deeply embarrassing to the White House. It has been challenged by the Republicans,…

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