How We Lost Afghanistan

Fighting Terror on $1 Billion a Month

It's a good thing that those snapshots of starving Afghans were taken in refugee camps in Quetta; you have to work hard to find hunger here. That's good too, since Afghans aren't getting any of that much vaunted food aid, unless they pay top afghani for it at the market.

Feed people out of bags covered with your flag and they'll love you, the theory goes. But based on this precept, no one in Afghanistan has any cause to even like you.

Even our military contribution isn't earning the U.S. any IOUs. "We appreciate the bombs you dropped on the Taliban," a veteran Alliance commander named Amin (many Afghans use only one name) told me. "But you bombed airports and roads that we need to run the country. And my men are dying because they have old Russian weapons and you Americans won't fully support us."

What do Afghans want from America? "Go home and leave us alone," one Alliance commander replied.
Photograph by Michael Kamber
What do Afghans want from America? "Go home and leave us alone," one Alliance commander replied.

What do you want from America?

"Go home and leave us alone."

The principal goal of this adventure in imperialistic vengeance, it seems obvious, should be to install a friendly government in Kabul. But we're winning neither hearts nor minds among either the commoners or the leadership of the current regime apparent.

"How can you talk of imposing that old king on us?" Amin snaps. "Even my father doesn't remember who he is."

A bolder nation-building objective, to reshape medieval Afghanistan from a land of donkeys lugging bundles of sticks into something resembling modernity—i.e., us—has actually moved further away since the beginning of the bombing. Along with the demise of Talibanism's more unusual strictures against kites, pigeons, and women, has come a reversion to the pre-nation-state feudalism that prevailed the last time this regime ran things, from 1992 to 1996.

When a Swedish cameraman was murdered in a Taloqan push-in robbery, journalists asked their liaison at Foreign Ministry to advise them as to which authorities would handle the investigation. "There will be no investigation," came the perfunctory reply.

"But a crime has been committed," a Portuguese television editor insisted. "Where do Afghans go to report crimes?"

"They go home. Nowhere."

The system of governance espoused by anarchokids on St. Marks Place is in full effect here beyond Thunderdome. "You can kill anyone you want, provided they don't have any friends," my translator Jovid assured me. "Nothing will happen."

Thus it's no surprise that Afghanistan has become a gangland paradise. Sign up for service with a local warlord and see the world. You'll die young whether or not you join, but at least your friends will kill your killer if you do.

Americans, mostly of the right and the post-9-11 squishy left, want Afghanistan and its jihad boys out of their hair. For the most part, the barn door has long remained open—tens of thousands of jihad grads are everywhere from Alabama to Alberta, and camps remain operational in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. But even assuming that the locals are mistaken about Osama having packed up for a new cave on the Pakistani side of the Kashmiri Line of Control, closing the Taliban Club isn't likely to put an end to Islamic extremism here. For one thing, the Northern Alliance itself remains a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism—with few exceptions, women remain out of sight and out of work, Sharia law still enforces stoning as punishment, and America is still viewed as a blank-check endorser of Israeli war crimes and Saudi corruption. And for all of America's talk of dropping as many yellow food packs—I haven't seen a single one, by the way—as bombs, Bush Deux is already losing interest in this accursed buffer state just as his father did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

"Next target: Saddam," reads a handwritten sign on a derelict Soviet tank outside a "secret" American base south of the Uzbek border. "It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country," an American officer who refused to give his name noted while his driver worked on a flat tire. "Billions of dollars and many, many years. We don't have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read."

And so we've lost this war, not because they're good or we're not, but because of who we are. The American Empire can't spend the bodies or the time or the cash to fix this crazyass place, because in the final analysis, election-year W. was right—we're not nation builders. Guys who once called themselves Talibs switch to something called the Northern Alliance, and we call this a victory. We know it isn't so, but like Nixon's peace with honor, it'll have to do.

Both the Russians and the English lost everything to Afghanistan, but it doesn't have to end that way for us. After all, the same thing happened to us in Vietnam, our first Afghanistan, but we survived it. True, our economy was never the same. Undeniably, it replaced an American Century with postmodern alienation and ironic detachment. But if those estimates are correct and this war is costing a mere billion bucks a month, we ought to tally our dead, write up our losses, and count ourselves lucky to still be called a superpower.

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