Douglas Cohn: US on its way home from Afghanistan and its poppies

By Douglas Cohn

Syndicated columnist

0 Comments | Leave a Comment

WASHINGTON — President Obama summoned his top commanders to the White House on Tuesday after reports surfaced that Afghan President Karzai had been meeting secretly with the Taliban, jeopardizing the future of the U.S. mission once combat troops are withdrawn at the end of this year.

Seeking to hold onto power, Karzai has turned on the U.S., refusing to sign the long-term security agreement he brokered and accusing American commanders of staging insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in his recent memoir, “Duty,” that President Obama detests Karzai, a sentiment widely shared in Washington by those who have dealt with him over the years and found him an inconsistent partner in what is now America’s longest war. As active U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan nears an end, it’s appropriate to ask what was accomplished, and whether goals set by two successive presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were achieved.

One sobering data point, reported by The Washington Post, is the poor maintenance of the 10,000 miles of paved roads constructed by the U.S. and other Western allies. At the start of the war, there were only a limited number of roads, so adding thousands more should be a boon to the economy. However, the Post found that the shoddy or nonexistent maintenance of these symbols of Western intervention have turned them into death traps. There’s fault on both sides but it’s hard to resist the conclusion that Western money and more tragically, lives, were wasted in pursuit of what proved an impossible dream.

There were two phases to this war. The first and most successful part came when a small number of U.S. covert troops banded with the Northern Alliance, an indigenous Afghan force, to oust the Taliban. President Bush, perhaps overly confident that Afghanistan had been freed of the Taliban, then turned his attention to Iraq and a needless invasion that would almost destroy his presidency. That gave time to the Taliban to retrench, and that’s when Bush and his commanders made the Soviet mistake. He went in with ground troops without a clear, achievable objective, and like the Soviets a generation before, U.S. troops have paid a terrible price.

Bush wanted to rescue Afghanistan from being a failed state, boost its government and its economy to prevent it from harboring another Osama bin Laden. Good intentions but how to deliver on them? Bush’s answer was to bet on Karzai, who had been active in the anti-Taliban movement and whose family was known in the U.S. as the proprietors of Afghan restaurants in several cities, including Baltimore and San Francisco. Bush was taken with the colorful leader, though it wouldn’t be long before Karzai would betray the president’s confidence.

First Lady Laura Bush remains active in promoting the rights of girls and women in Afghanistan, and the number of girls attending school is significant. Whether that will last once U.S. troops pull out and the Taliban reasserts itself is an open question.

Policymakers in Washington may comfort themselves believing the U.S. is not leaving Afghanistan in worse shape than when U.S. troops went in, but the cost benefit ratio of billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost is challenging enough that Gates said any future U.S. president who enters another land war in Asia, the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined.”

In this longest American war, the U.S. tried to do what it thought would help the Afghan people, including the eradication of poppy fields that were their livelihood. The Taliban tried that too, objecting to the crops on moral grounds. That’s how they lost the support of the people. Now the Taliban embraces the poppies, and the U.S. is on its way home.

U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.