The Afghans want us to stay, so it is long past time to haul up the gear and leave the Hindu Kush to its ways. In one of his many outrageous statements, Hamid Karzai, last November, laid out his view of our place in his scheme of things. “The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen. They should not interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest.”
We can never claim that our Afghan clients said sweet things about us in public, we can never cite them paying tribute to the sacrifices of the strangers who came into their midst to emancipate them from the barbarism of the Taliban. We drove up the price of the Afghan real estate, and a people steeped in a rare mix of destitution and legend offered us the high honor of being of service to them. It is odd, a people who exalted war, and supposedly gloried in the independence of their mountains, had no interest in the departure of the Western armies. The Afghans had become a dependent people, the foreign handouts had altered their age-old ways. Last year, some $4.6 billion was hauled out of the country – and this was the declared sums. There are eight flights a day from Kabul to Dubai, bundles of cash are taken to the shopping malls and banks of that city state. The imperial legends, the stories about foreign soldiers shredded by the warriors and the cruel mountains, the ethnographies that exalted the Pashtunwali, were now a cover for a culture that had been degraded by war; a people’s very history had become kitsch, a trap for the unsuspecting.
It can’t be said that we did not catch on to the Afghan trade. In a cable of 2009, then U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry saw into the heart of the racket. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” our envoy wrote. “He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.” But the Obama presidency was on the Kabul hook. The commander-in-chief who doubled down in Afghanistan was without illusions. In Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, the custodian of American power asks and answers his own question: “Why should Karzai change?” The Afghan ruler had no incentive for reform, the American paymaster said, Karzai would persist with his ways, and the “U.S. would be stuck tending to the country for him.”
Our republic is big and rich and forgetful enough to wage war in Afghanistan and pay it no heed. Say what you wish about the Iraq war, it was the subject of an anguished national debate. The leaders who waged it were practically accused of war crimes, they were said to have lied their way into Mesopotamia. No such passion attends this Afghan campaign. It is, for all practical purposes, a stealth war. It is Obama’s war, and it isn’t. The man credited with being a brilliant orator has had so little to say about Afghanistan. He fights a war there, but the land and the people don’t move him or speak to him.
We have no war aims that could be secured there. The jihadists have moved on, the “Arab Street” that gave the jihad its sly support and foot soldiers and money has, in that familiar Arab alternation of belief and disillusion, taken up other passions. All we have left in Afghanistan are those devoted men and women fighting on our behalf, kept there by our leaders. They have done all they could for the Afghans, soldiered on in our longest war. The place, and the war, are now beyond romance and legend.
Fouad Ajami is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution