Soon after I left, a terrible thing happened: Hajji Abdul Jabbar and his son were killed by a car bomb planted in the road on their way home. But then a remarkable thing happened: Hajji Mohammad, a younger and better-educated man, immediately stepped forward and volunteered to replace the district governor. The pomegranate harvest had been solid, with far less wastage than the farmers had come to take for granted. Investors were talking about building storage capacities and improving roads. Melton felt that the innumerable threads of the social contract were ever so slowly being knit together. And Afghanistan is full of places like Arghandab, where girls have begun going to school, women have emerged from seclusion, poor farmers have found that they can govern themselves, businesses have flourished. If people hunger for a better life, outsiders can help them. And doing so is a noble enterprise—even if, and maybe especially if, the effort takes place in the middle of a war.
But this kind of bottom-up change is the work of a generation or more. The battle the U.S. and its allies are fighting is a matter of months and scant years. If the counterinsurgency effort is to help drive the Taliban from Afghanistan by persuading millions of ordinary Afghans to prefer the government to the insurgents, it would have to be a national effort sustained by the national government. And it is no such thing. While the U.S., NATO, and the U.N. have been trying to build up the capacity of the Karzai government, Karzai himself has refused to move against corrupt officials or brutal warlords, refused to empower local governors, refused to extend desperately needed services to the countryside, refused even to support the large-scale civilian effort. You can’t want good governance more than the country’s actual governors do.
So where are we? We don’t know for sure if we can afford to cede portions of Afghanistan to the Taliban. We don’t know for sure if we could minimize the threat through classic counterterror measures. We know we’re getting better at killing insurgents, but we don’t know if that’s doing any good or if they’ll just keep regenerating. Senior administration officials admit that the planned transition to Afghan control may fail. Can we really wait until 2014 to find out? The war may end not with a handoff but with a political negotiation (though the discovery that an impostor has passed himself off to NATO and Afghan officials as Mullah Omar’s right-hand man does not give one much confidence about this process either). Such talks, if they are to succeed, will have to bring together Taliban leaders with Afghan, U.S., and NATO officials, as well as the neighbors who have a real, if often conflicting, stake in the region: Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps China.
Those talks will have to protect not only our own interests, or Hamid Karzai’s, but also those of the Afghan people: We have incurred obligations to them by virtue of our massive intervention in their lives and the hopes we have raised. What this means is that even if NATO forces ultimately withdraw from some areas that Afghan security cannot control, and that thus may fall to the Taliban, the U.S. and other international actors must sustain the civilian side of the effort everywhere security permits. Moreover, if our security really is at risk in Afghanistan, we can’t be satisfied with a Central Asian equivalent of “Vietnamization,” in which our proxies collapse once we fly off on our helicopters. We must be prepared to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan—but at a much lower level of commitment than now.
The endgame, whatever it is, will be a lengthy, messy, and almost certainly unsatisfying process. But one lesson we have learned in recent years is that the world is not nearly so amenable to the application of American power as we thought. The world is recalcitrant. That doesn’t mean we turn away. It means that we need to be more modest than we have been and more persistent than we have been. Persistence and modesty are not classical liberal virtues. Maybe they should be.