Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.
As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.
The reason why the United States or, more specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency was so interested in Hamid Karzai after 9/11 was that he was a man who had a foot in every camp, and a finger in every pie. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher, for example, wanted to reach out to the Taliban in 1995, the Taliban middleman to whom he turned was … Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president personifies the Afghan trait of never losing a war, only defecting to the winning side.
Karzai’s actions—both the ban on Special Forces in Wardak and the prohibition of NATO airstrikes in civilian areas—are meant to bolster the Taliban. Karzai sees the Taliban as winning, and has convinced himself that he can pivot to represent them and their Pakistani patrons rather than the Americans. In this he is wrong: Pakistan’s ISI trust Karzai about as much as Washington should have, and will not hesitate to dispose of him once the Americans are gone.
So what is the American strategy? Talks. There has been no breakthrough in Qatar, however. This should not surprise. We are talking to the same exact Taliban officials who lied their way to 9/11, yet the State Department has never bothered to assess what went wrong with talks in the 1990s. The Taliban are most interested in springing Taliban prisoners, not political compromise. That Taliban members released from detention in Pakistan have rejoined the insurgency should not surprise, nor should the fact that Pakistani authorities didn’t coordinate their prisoner release with Kabul, let alone Washington.
In 2014, against the backdrop of planned Afghan elections, the United States will abandon Afghanistan. Rhetoric about continuing relations fall short given how such promises fell short with Iraq. Afghans are already preparing for the civil war which will follow. Some, like Karzai, will try to pivot and then grovel in the hope of maintaining their position. Others will flee, their money already safely stowed away in Dubai real estate or Swiss banks. Many tribal leaders and officials have sons in both camps, trying desperately to preserve their family’s security come what may. The notion that the Taliban are only interested in predominantly Pushtun areas is silly. Their occupation of Herat in 1995, Kabul in 1996, and Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 and again in 1998 should put to rest the idea that their appetite is satiable.
The coming civil war will be bloody. There are more stake-holders than after the “Peshawar 7” ousted Najibullah in 1992. American officials can claim victory, but they are abandoning our Afghan allies and women in a way which will reverberate far beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and have yet to articulate a strategy to ensure that the vacuum that enabled an al-Qaeda presence doesn’t once again open, endangering U.S. national security.
The most dangerous lessons drawn from the Afghanistan war are those already grasped by our opponents and with which the United States will have to grapple for decades to come: First is the fact that it is easy to outlast America, and second is that embraced by Pakistan—distract America with a proxy, because diplomats will always treat that proxy as an independent actor. Under Obama, we have become like a cat, swatting a string and never bothering to look at who is dangling it.