[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
In light of this week's bombshell revelations about the course of the war in Afghanistan, I read an interesting commentary that grabbed my attention:
"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
The thing is, as persuasive as this commentary may be, it isn't about Afghanistan. Rather, those words marked the conclusion of Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News on February 27, 1968, and Cronkite was talking about Vietnam. The trusted newsman's assessment of the war is often credited as the turning point for American public opinion, moving opposition to the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam into the mainstream. Reportedly, upon hearing this commentary, President Lyndon Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
I can't help wonder if the release of the Afghan War Logs by WikiLeaks is our Cronkite moment for Afghanistan. In fact, when I consider the totality of the recent news on our efforts in Afghanistan, I can't reach any other conclusion than that if Cronkite was still alive, he would say we have.
I have not reached this pessimistic point easily. After the 9/11 attacks, I was a supporter of President Bush's military response in Afghanistan. And when Bush turned his focus to Iraq, even before we knew of his administration's efforts to manipulate intelligence and the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction, I was troubled that he had chosen to move our focus from a country that harbored the men who planned 9/11 to one that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on our country. And when President Obama made fixing this Bush blunder a center of his foreign policy proposals during the campaign, I agreed with his assessment of the situation and proposal to intensify American efforts there.
But there comes a time when you have to recognize when something isn't working (a skill that Obama has demonstrated from time to time, and one the last president did not possess at all). A time when our leaders have to demonstrate the courage and sound judgment to do what is right, regardless of how political opponents will shamelessly and disgracefully spin the decision into something that is cowardly and risky. And that time, I fear, is now.
What has brought me to this conclusion? It's not just the War Logs, but how they crystallize lessons we have been learning over the last year.
Afghanistan has a history of being unconquerable by foreign forces, something we witnessed first-hand when we helped the mujahideen repel the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion. What was supposed to make our military action in Afghanistan different was that rather than impose our will on the country, we were there to support the wishes of the Afghan people through democratic elections. A worthy goal (especially in light of the Taliban's role in harboring Osama bin Laden), but, it turns out, maybe not one that can be accomplished (especially after years of Bush neglect).
President Obama undertook a careful analysis of what to do in Afghanistan (something the Republicans shamefully portrayed as dithering), settling on the current counterinsurgency strategy that relies on building trust in government institutions as a way of winning the loyalty of the Afghan people (at the expense of the Taliban).
It was certainly worth a try. But, when the plan was put into practice, we ran into some roadblocks, many of which are highlighted in the War Logs. Generally, we can only do so much in Afghanistan if we don't have a partner to work with, and if we don't have the support of Pakistan.
It all starts with Hamid Karzai. His 2009 election was dogged by allegations of fraud. His government has been accused of being corrupt. He cozied up to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He even threatened to join the Taliban. It's hard to argue that it is worth risking American lives (more than 1,000 so far) and treasure (more than $300 billion) to prop up Karzai.
Similarly, the War Logs illustrate what we have long been told: The Afghan police, army and local government officials are unwilling and/or unable to provide the kind of services the Afghan people need. James Traub, in a compelling piece in the New York Times Magazine on June 15, did a great job of demonstrating the problems U.S. commanders face in trying to support Afghan institutions, from the power of tribal leaders to the ability of the Taliban to intimidate locals.
The War Logs also reveal the civilian casualties caused by U.S. military and intelligence operations. In what is emerging as a Catch-22 situation, the longer we are there, the less we are wanted there by local Afghans, and the harder it is to convince citizens that they will be safe from the Taliban if they throw in their lots with the Americans and the Karzai government.
But the most problematic obstacle raised in the War Logs just may be the evidence that Pakistani intelligence is aiding the Taliban. President Obama has frequently noted that there is no solution to the Afghan question without also addressing Pakistan, a country that receives billions of dollars in American aid. If the Pakistani government is aiding the Taliban, it seems that we have bigger problems than just trying to prop up the Karzai government until it can take over governing the country without us.
So while the mission in Afghanistan began as a necessary operation (remove the Taliban government that supported and harbored the 9/11 perpetrators), was botched by the Bush administration (who shifted resources to Iraq) and was reassessed and refocused by President Obama, our moment may have already passed. We have a corrupt and ineffectual government in Afghanistan (including the police and military), and we have an ally in Pakistan that is aiding the enemy. And the result is an Afghan population that just doesn't have an incentive to choose the government over the Taliban.
Afghanistan just may be the living embodiment of a no-win situation.
We were told if we let the Communists take over Vietnam, the repercussions would be severe. But history found those warnings to be unfounded. So it seems to me we can protect our interests in the region without surrendering American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up an odious government. After more than eight years in Afghanistan (and missed opportunities after early successes), a military solution may no longer be possible.
Which is why it is time to heed Cronkite's 42-year-old words of advice to "negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
Time will tell if WikiLeaks' release of the War Logs turns out to be a Cronkite-like turning point, the moment that the American people stop supporting the war in Afghanistan. It seems to me it should be.