Not exactly an impartial critic on the level of Walter Cronkite, longtime Washington Post columnist George Will has declared the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. He’s probably right. If victory for coalition forces in Afghanistan means the country will be at peace, ruled by a representative democracy from Kabul, and that both the Taliban and Al Qaeda will have been eliminated, then yes, the war is unwinnable. American and NATO forces cannot tame Afghanistan, and would be foolish to try.
More disturbing than such misguided efforts would be, is the realization that no one knows what our goals in Afghanistan really are. Right now, we are fighting a war without a plan, without a definition of success, and without a way out. Worse yet, we are escalating. When President Obama pledged to bring sense and resources to bear on the good war in Afghanistan during the election, who would have thought he would only go halfway? Current American force levels are at 68,000, and our commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal, is expected to soon ask for more. Yet all this escalation has accomplished so far is an increased rate of American and Afghani deaths. No one has central control of the country, and what government there is in Kabul is hopelessly corrupt.
We are caught in the middle of a civil war. Some sides hate us, some tolerate us, at least one depends wholly on us. At this point, it seems the only influence we have on this civil war is stalling its final outcome. So what’s to be done?
Far greater minds than mine are spending much time on this conundrum, so I won’t pretend I have any concrete answers. But before we commit more troops to the fight or change whatever the grand strategy in Afghanistan is, there are two issues, and our approach to them, that need to be addressed.
One is poppy farming. The other is the Taliban.
The importance of poppy farming to the Afghan economy cannot be overstated. It is the cash crop of the nation. But, because of the west’s continuing and misguided war on drugs, practical decisions about handling the Afghan poppy crop cannot be made. The first reaction in the American government is that poppy production is bad, and there is no justification for it. Because of it, the world is flooded with opium and heroin, the profits go to criminals and terrorists, and the world is generally a more dangerous place because of it. This is true, but only because there is no legitimate outlet for the Afghan poppy harvest.
Additionally, eradicating poppy production in Afghanistan will continue to be an impossible task due to its importance at relieving the crushing poverty that most Afghani farmers live under. The prices they get for their crop outstrip anything else they could plant. Simple economics dictates what they grow. Active prevention of poppy farming will only continue to alienate the population and fuel resentments towards the United States. An angry population does us no good. Poppy being the linchpin of the Afghan economy that it is, trying to separate the Afghanis from it is simply counterproductive.
Legalization of heroin and opium around the world to legitimize the poppy crop in Afghanistan is no solution, but quite frankly, we need to make the hard decision on the ground and, for the good of the mission, back off the poppy farmers. Let them grow all the poppy they want. If we get too squeamish about allowing illegal drugs to flood the market, then we should allocate money to buy the entire crop and destroy it. That would probably be ultimately cheaper for us than what normally happens after the poppy goes to market, when its worldwide reach involves tens of thousands of customs and law enforcement agents, the prison systems of almost every nation on earth, and the hospitals and clinics that have to treat users and addicts.
Were this to happen, of course the money would be going to some unsavory people, many of which we are currently fighting against. Financing the enemy is hardly a sound strategy, and would need serious thought put towards the problem, but continuing to battle against poppy farming is a waste of time, money and resources, held hostage by our own country’s drug addictions, and has nothing to do with stabilizing Afghanistan. It has to stop.
Issue number two is the Taliban. They are an indigenous organization that is battling a foreign occupation using the tactics of insurgency. As such, they cannot be defeated by NATO and American forces, because we cannot dedicate the resources and time necessary to wait them out. The Taliban are not Al Qaeda, although the intertwined nature of their past relationship is exactly what led to our invasion of Afghanistan in the first place. But now, eight years later, the Taliban believe all they have to do is bleed us slowly and wait us out, and we will leave. They are correct. Afghanistan is a far away place that is not worth dying for. The Taliban has no global reach that threatens us. It follows, therefore, that we should disengage from fighting the Taliban. How this could be accomplished is the puzzle to end all puzzles. But, once again, we are slave to interpretations of reality that have no place on the ground in Afghanistan.
We have such a black and white vision of what it means for someone to be our enemy that we can accept nothing but total surrender. This is nonsense. It’s time to negotiate a ceasefire with the Taliban, and address grievances (including human rights), after the shooting stops. We will be abandoning a large swath of humanity to suffer under the sandals of an oppressive regime, but we don’t have the capacity to free them anyways.
George Will was partly correct when he suggested we continue the war on terror from afar. But, that would mean a return to much the same mentality we had in the 1990s, when we thought a few well-aimed cruise missiles could protect us. We still need troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, for that matter, but the last thing they should be doing is fighting anyone who does not belong to an international terrorist organization. Fighting for control of a nation that we cannot control is a paradox we have to overcome.