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The Best News Out of Afghanistan

4 minute read
Joe Klein

In the beginning, as American troops pushed toward Baghdad in March 2003, General David Petraeus asked Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post a famous question: “Tell me how this ends?” For years, the Petraeus question has stood as a sober, unanswered counterpoint to George W. Bush’s swaggering, inaccurate mission accomplished banner.

But now, with the NATO decision to pull all combat troops out of Afghanistan by the middle of next year, we can hazard some guesses. The Bush war on terrorism will end as it began and should have remained–a special-forces war. It is as John Kerry described it in the 2004 presidential campaign: a constant national-security concern, requiring intense intelligence work and occasional special operations, but one that never required a major commitment of U.S. forces. It also ends better than we had any right to expect, given the disastrously stupid invasion of Iraq–a fact largely attributable to the job Petraeus did to stabilize the situation there in 2007.

Of course, it isn’t really over. The consequences of the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001 will ramify for decades. Iraq may fall into civil war or dissolve entirely (the Kurds already have signaled their intent to achieve de facto independence), or it may enjoy a rush of oil wealth that will salve the Sunni-Shi’ite friction. Afghanistan seems likely to remain trapped in its perpetual civil war between the southern Pashtun and the northern ethnic factions. The NATO decision carries with it the implicit faith that the Afghan National Army, composed almost entirely of non-Pashtuns, will be able to keep the Taliban out of Kabul. This will be done at some expense: an estimated $4 billion a year in aid, mostly from the U.S. But it also reflects a new reality: the war against al-Qaeda has gone elsewhere and become more diffuse.

On the very day of NATO’s Afghanistan decision, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber decimated a military parade in Yemen, killing at least 100 and wounding hundreds more. This followed the CIA’s successful infiltration of a Yemen-based al-Qaeda cell that was hoping to blow up an airliner with an advanced version of an underwear bomb. Yes, there are still miscreants like Ayman al-Zawahiri wandering the Pakistani borderlands, but al-Qaeda’s center of gravity seems to have moved to Yemen, where it will be fought with drones and special-ops teams. That is relatively good news on several counts. The best news is that tens of thousands of American troops will no longer need to be in harm’s way.

The next best news is that we don’t have to spend so much time wringing our hands about the Pakistanis anymore. To be sure, Pakistan remains the most dangerous country in the world, far more dangerous, potentially, than Iran. It has a nuclear arsenal of perhaps 100 warheads–and a history of Islamist military coups. It also has a history of foreign policy chicanery, delusion and paranoia. If there were a Pakistani leader with a fraction of, say, Benjamin Netanyahu’s knowledge of American politics, Pakistan never would have closed the NATO supply routes to Afghanistan and demanded an apology from Barack Obama for the incident in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by American fire in a cross-border artillery duel last November. For one thing, the Pakistanis fired first. For another, Obama isn’t going to apologize for anything in the midst of a presidential campaign in which his opponent has attacked him, falsely, for engaging in a global “apology tour.”

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate estimated that the NATO effort in Afghanistan would survive only 10 to 15 days if Pakistan closed the transport routes. That proved to be ridiculous. “And it is costing Pakistan more than it is NATO,” says one regional expert. “The Pakistani truckers are suffering.” But then, Pakistan’s miscalculations have been legion. It harbored Osama bin Laden and armed Taliban factions, like the Haqqanis, in the mistaken belief that we’d never find out or that we needed Pakistan too much to do anything about it. The truth is, our need for an alliance with Pakistan is marginal. India is a more reliable partner in the region.

We have learned a great deal in the past 11 years. We have learned about the power of ethnicity, sectarianism and, above all, geography. We’ve learned of the impotence of Western imperial inventions like the cobbled-together nonstates of Iraq and Pakistan. We’ve learned that Southwest Asia is no more hospitable to Western expeditionary forces than Southeast Asia was. Perhaps, in the process, we’ve also learned something about the importance of humility as we make our way in the world.

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