Of all the strategically critical battle zones dotting our chaotic world, none presents a more depressing picture right now than Afghanistan. Depressing, that is, not because of what is happening there, but because of what is not happening. Afghanistan is not getting better. On the contrary. After more than six-and-a-half years of combat against primitively armed bands of Islamist militants, America and its allies are farther from victory than ever. In the place where America began its war on terror, terror is winning.
It was not supposed to be this way. Afghanistan was, to borrow an old phrase, the good war. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan was an instantly understandable focus of American wrath in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the place where the plot had been hatched and directed, the country most responsible for America’s grief. It had a readily identifiable target, a government of extremists who were the hosts and patrons of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. It had a clear mission and a clear definition of victory: Capture bin Laden, expel the Taliban government and let the people choose a new, democratic government.
Beginning just weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, America was able to go in, guns blazing, with a full posse of allies and the blessings of the world community, to take down the perpetrators and reestablish its credibility as a superpower. So certain was the prospect of success that President Bush was able to begin thinking almost immediately of a phase 2, a second target zone upon which to project our values.
Almost seven years later, America has less credibility as a global leader than at any time since it first stepped onto the stage. The Taliban, chased out of Kabul within weeks of America’s arrival, have regrouped and retaken the initiative. Last month, June, saw one of the most daring Taliban operations since the war began, a mass prison break by 900 fighters who proceeded to take over eight villages in the suburbs of the Afghanistan’s second city, Kandahar, and very nearly captured the city itself. It was the worst month for American losses since the war began.
Al Qaeda, enemy no. 1, has regrouped in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan, facing Afghanistan, and is operating as many terrorist training camps as ever. Pakistan, supposedly America’s main regional ally, will not to take control of Al Qaeda’s strongholds in the northwest. America’s own military operations are regularly exposed anew as a comedy of errors, Pakistan and post-Saddam Iraq have both elected governments that view America with suspicion and don’t fully know which side they are on.
If ever there was to be a war on terror, Afghanistan was the battle that needed to be won. It has been clear for some time that the effort there was badly undermined by the wrongheaded decision to invade Iraq. It’s become clear, too, that the incompetence of the Bush administration turned a bad situation into a terrible one. Now, as we watch Afghanistan unravel, it’s time to ask whether the notion of a frontal war on terror ever amounted to anything more than a fool’s mission.