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What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Friday, March 16, 2012

For everyone who originally supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, the question today is how what was once a righteous mission can end in anything but ruin. Blaming the Bush administration's neglect and incompetence for the critical failures of the first several years is fair enough, but it is not easy to argue, let alone prove, that the Obama administration has improved upon the mess it inherited.

The same corruption prevails in Hamid Karzai's Kabul and the same incompetence and lassitude plague the Afghan security forces. The only realistic option, unpalatable as it may be, is negotiation with the Taliban. But recent events have made that prospect even more elusive, as the Afghan people become still more alienated.

The absence of rioting in the wake of the massacre of 16 civilians -- mostly women and children -- by an American soldier should not be regarded as anything but the numb resignation of a people who now regard atrocities as ordinary in the conduct of war by both sides. They know that the Taliban regularly perpetrate similar crimes and worse, yet they no longer welcome the presence of the foreigners who came to save them. The state of relations between American troops and the Afghans they are supposed to be training is reflected by the fact that the safety of U.S. personnel can no longer be assured even in government ministries.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government continues to be dominated by a clique bent on kleptocracy rather than democracy. To the extent that the Karzai government represents the popular will, it does so by abusing the Americans and our allies -- a meager thanks for the expenditure of blood and treasure that created it and keeps it in power. Protecting the dominant element in Afghan politics only ensures that the United States shares the responsibility for its crimes and the hatred of the people it oppresses.

What keeps the United States engaged is a plausible concern that our departure will permit the Taliban to claim victory, and that our troops are making progress, slow but measurable, in recapturing territory from the enemy. There is no longer any illusion among Pentagon leaders or in the White House that foreign forces can permanently extirpate the Taliban, desirable as that would be. Instead, the real policy for the past few years, whether troops levels rise or fall, is to establish a basis for reconciliation between Kabul and its armed opponents, and to leave the Afghans prepared to defend themselves from extremism.

Thanks to Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, however, we now know that the progress that has justified the war during the Obama years is largely illusory. Generals like David Petraeus tell the president and Congress that things are going well, but after spending a year on the ground, Davis discovered the opposite -- and with great courage revealed his findings.

Haven't we heard this story before? Yes, it all sounds far too familiar -- an endless war on behalf of an unworthy and ungrateful regime, bolstered by dubious reports of progress and sustained by fitful attempts at negotiation. Of course, there are important differences between Vietnam, where the United States took over a colonial battle based on deceptions and delusions, and Afghanistan, where we and our allies went in to remove the gang responsible for the murder of thousands of civilians on American soil. More than a decade later, with Osama bin Laden dead, those distinctions are fading rapidly.

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