Afghanistan is incredibly complicated, but on Wednesday, the 8th anniversary of the war, I had a rare moment of clarity. MSNBC's David Shuster was asking foreign correspondent Richard Engel if there was any way a surge of the sort that sorta-worked in Iraq could work in Afghanistan. Engel explained, correctly, that the surge only worked because we backed, paid and armed the various warlords and tribal leaders who'd joined the anti-U.S. insurgency but then tired of it, either weary of war or appalled by the foreign fighters of al-Qaida.
There was one comparable strategy for Afghanistan, Engel admitted -- but that would be to ally with the Taliban. That's the kind of surreal logic -- a successful war in Afghanistan might involve making peace with our enemies -- that Afghanistan inspires, poppies or not.
Eight years into a war that never achieved its main goals -- killing or capturing Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida leaders behind the 9/11 attacks, or eradicating the Taliban government that let the terror group base itself there -- President Obama is casting about for a new strategy. The only thing I know for sure is sending more troops will be a disaster. The goal has to be a gradual drawdown of the U.S. troops who are there now, because there is really no set of Afghan forces that any surge of soldiers -- Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants at least 40,000 -- could prop up. The former Northern Alliance is now mostly in government, although split between backers of apparently fraudulently elected Hamid Karzai and his opponent Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban now controls almost 80 percent of the country, and the number of al-Qaida fighters is said to be under 100.
So if Al-Qaida is effectively gone, and Osama bin Laden is almost certainly gone, what are we doing there -- other than creating a homegrown insurgency and more support for the Taliban? Our options are either propping up an undemocratically chosen leader, backing his rival or looking for other Afghans to empower -- and there's almost nobody else but the Taliban. Afghanistan is far worse off than Iraq. It has effectively no army, few civil institutions. How many more American and Afghan lives is it worth to prove what we know with some certainty already: We are going to wind up leaving Afghanistan in the hands of men we have spent time trying to kill.
Make no mistake: I despise the Taliban for its blinkered views on modern life, especially its misogyny. No withdrawal of troops can begin without planning to protect, or transplant, our Democratic allies there, including the brave women leaders that have emerged. But George W. Bush gave up on his faux-goal of liberating Afghanistan's women a long time ago. This has become a war not to evict our enemies from Afghanistan, but to destroy a government we suspect someday might again let our enemies set up camp there. Defined that way, it's a preventive war, a pre-emptive war; it's continuing the Bush Doctrine that Sarah Palin couldn't define and that Barack Obama promised to overturn.
President Obama needs the strength to say no to McChrystal. Let's hope he finds it.