The origins of a war do not always illuminate its outcome. The Iraq war began in what I now regard (but did not regard at the time, since I was persuaded that there were nuclear in the hands of a tyrant who had already used chemical weapons) as a scandal of misunderstanding and misjudgment, but Iraq is now the better for having begun its arduous experiment in self-government. The beginnings of the Afghan war, by contrast, seemed unimpeachable to me -- the extirpation of Al Qaeda and the collateral blessing of the Taliban’s rout; but I lost faith in the Afghan war a few years ago. The reason was that I lost faith in Afghanistan, in its determination to transform itself into the sort of society that would no longer provide a basis in social and political reality for the Taliban and other theocratic enemies of decency and prosperity. After all, what makes the Taliban frightening is not its military power, but its social and cultural plausibility. Its sources of legitimacy have not been destroyed. The problem is that the task of delegitimating the Taliban is not a military one. To paraphrase Burke, the sword has done all that the sword can do. (Would one more “fighting season” really change the country?). We have decimated Al Qaeda, and our enemies now operate in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. But we have not changed Afghanistan, at least not significantly enough to justify the further expense of American blood and money.
Was it stupid to believe that we could have done so? I don’t know. I am not a fatalist about historical action: Perhaps Afghanistan will one day be more than the “graveyard of empires”, even if we are not an empire and it will not be our graveyard. But as I read about the rush for the exits by many Afghans, and the insane figures of capital flight, my impression is confirmed that after ten years of war the Afghans are still desperate for our protection from, well, themselves. This place that is legendary for the tenacity of its fighters – another of those myths that incline statesmen to brandy and passivity – has proven curiously unable to fight for itself.
But there is a strategic lesson to be learned from the impasse in Afghanistan, and it concerns the doctrine of counter-insurgency. I have no doubt that there will be cases in which that doctrine will apply again: the Pentagon’s current insistence upon the historical obsolescence of “hearts and minds” as a strategic objective is short-sighted, like its infatuation with sexy drones and sexy SEALS as the primary instruments of American force. But it is important to acknowledge in the aftermath of our Afghan experience that counter-insurgency is a doctrine that disadvantages the military by imposing upon it objectives that it does not by itself have the power to achieve. I am not referring only to the need to supplement battle with development, soldiers with civilians. There is a greater complication. It is that victory in a war of counter-insurgency cannot be decided by us. It can only be decided by the people of the country in which we are operating. As long as they do not believe that the war has not been won, the war will not be won. We are in their hands. If their beliefs about themselves and their historical possibilities remain the same, then all our successes in the field will be temporary.
This is what seems to have occurred in Afghanistan: we altered the external situation but not the internal situation. Afghanistan wants safety without progress. Of course there are many good people in Afghanistan who do not deserve to be abandoned to the Taliban. But if it is true that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, then the good men in Afghanistan have not done enough, or there are not enough of them. We have not been impatient in Afghanistan. We have been, except in our campaign against Al Qaeda, impotent. Such is the power of a foreign heart and a traditional mind.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.