Nathan Finney has a piece up at the Kabul Cable right now on advisors. It’s a good read and he gets at some important ideas. One of his main arguments is that policy should drive everything, which might seem obvious to the wonks, but policy – and the stomach/political will to do what it actually takes to achieve policy goals – has been changeable and often lacking. At this point, it seems clear that when we went into Afghanistan, we either didn’t really think about what our long term objective for Afghanistan itself was – as opposed to our objective for al Qaeda, or the Taliban, which was pretty clear – or that we were not realistic at all as to what it would take to achieve it.
The increased use of, and emphasis on, advisors did not really come up until we were looking for a way out. See, once we had gone in and knocked the Taliban out of power and chased most of what was left of al Qaeda in the country into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, we started that other war, that ill-conceived, ill-fated adventure in Iraq. And we just sort of bumped along in Afghanistan. We set up a government. We fought occasional pockets of resistance that got less and less occasional, but we didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, as a country. Because Iraq, Iraq got so damn ugly, it took all of our attention and in the end, drained us of our will to persevere. When things had gotten bad enough in Afghanistan that we had to pay attention, even as they were finally winding down in Iraq, we just wanted out. Though the President made the decision to ‘surge’ the troops in Afghanistan in 2009, it was basically too little, too late.
So before long the objective had to change again. We would no longer concern ourselves with the whole of Afghanistan, with a democratic government, elected freely and able to provide necessary services to all its people. We would no longer be as worried about trying to do the right thing, or even about cleaning up the messes we had made ourselves. But we didn’t leave. Because if we just left, we were cowards, we were cutters and runners, we were admitting defeat. So where did this leave us? Determined to persevere, largely if not entirely just to save face, but with the only real objective to get the hell out.
The new version of victory would be to stand up the Afghan military and police forces, to act as advisors to build their capacity. It’s not that advisory missions can’t be effective – Finney’s piece touches on some of the ways in which they can - but forgive me if in this case it looked to me like another way to redefine victory, a grasping at one last straw that might let us tell ourselves that no we weren’t leaving because we’d lost, no it wasn’t all for nothing, all the damage and death and ugliness, that we achieved this thing, and that’s why we’re leaving, because we’re done and Afghanistan is better off.
We weren’t going to put in the years and years and billions and billions and time and energy on the day-to-day details of civil-society-building and education and capacity-building and infrastructure creation that this whole war-tired country needed. We want the answer to be easier, cheaper, simpler than it is. Victory, making things better, leaving a stable and friendly nation would have been a long, expensive, and expansive project had we really taken it on. No iteration in a continuing series of half-assed initiatives will change any of that. It’s uncomfortable to admit, because we want to be good, we want to be the people who do the right thing, because we want to always be a success, but the truth is we don’t care about Afghanistan. Not enough to do what it would really take. And this is why we fail.
This is why the advisory mission is a shambles too, with so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks – a pretty term for an ugly thing, that always evokes in my mind high grassy hills and wide summer skies, swirls of cool soothing color, not the heat and betrayal and blood it’s really meant to mean – occurring with alarming frequency, and I can’t help but think that it’s because all it ever was was a cover for our exit, a half-assed attempt to save face on our way out the door, and that deep down, we know it, and so do the Afghans.
Note: It should go without saying – but I’ll say it anyway since sometimes it doesn’t – that when I speak of what we have and haven’t done, I mean collectively as a nation. I know that there are many individuals who have served nobly, who care deeply, who have done what they can, and that there have been good programs and small areas of success. I am referring to our time in Afghanistan writ large.