By Ralph Peters
USATODAY - The conflict in Afghanistan is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of concentrating on the critical mission of keeping Islamist terrorists on the defensive, we've mired ourselves by attempting to modernize a society that doesn't want to be — and cannot be — transformed.
In the absence of a strategy, we're doubling our troop commitment, hoping to repeat the success we achieved in the profoundly different environment of Iraq. Unable to describe our ultimate goals with any clarity, we're substituting means for ends.
Expending blood and treasure blindly in Afghanistan, we do our best to shut our eyes to the worsening crisis next door in Pakistan, a radicalizing Muslim state with more than five times the population and a nuclear arsenal. We've turned the hose on the doghouse while letting the mansion burn.
Initially, Afghanistan wasn't a war of choice. We had to dislodge and decimate al-Qaeda, while punishing the Taliban and strengthening friendlier forces in the country. Our great mistake was to stay on in an attempt to build a modernized rule-of-law state in a feudal realm with no common identity.
We needed to smash our enemies and leave. Had it proved necessary, we could have returned later for another punitive mission. Instead, we fell into the great American fallacy of believing ourselves responsible for helping those who've harmed us. This practice was already fodder for mockery 50 years ago, when the novella and film The Mouse That Roared postulated that the best way for a poor country to get rich was to declare war on America then surrender.
Even if we achieved the impossible dream of creating a functioning, unified state in Afghanistan, it would have little effect on the layered crises in the Muslim world. Backward and isolated, Afghanistan is sui generis (only example of its kind). Political polarization in the U.S. precludes an honest assessment, but Iraq's the prize from which positive change might flow, while Afghanistan could never inspire neighbors who despise its backwardness.
Recalling failures of Vietnam
Echoing Vietnam, we're pouring wealth into Afghanistan, corrupting those we wish to rally; we're fighting with restrictions against an enemy who enjoys sanctuaries across international borders; and our core enemies are natives, not foreign parties (as al-Qaeda was in Iraq).
If the impending surge fails to pacify the country, will we send another increment of troops, then another, as we did in Southeast Asia? As the British learned the hard way, Afghanistan can be disciplined, but it can't be profitably occupied or liberalized. It's inconceivable to us, but many Afghans prefer their lives to the lives we envision for them. The lot of women is hideous, and the lives of nearly all the people are nasty, brutish and short. But the culture is theirs.
Even "our man in Kabul," President Hamid Karzai, put his self-interest above any greater cause. Reborn a populist, he backs every Taliban claim that the U.S. inflicts only civilian casualties in virtually every effort against terrorists. Karzai is convinced that we can't abandon him.
We should do just that. Instead of floundering in search of a strategy, we should consider removing the bulk, if not all, of our forces. The alternative is to hope blindly, waste more lives and resources, and, in the worst case, see our vulnerable supply route through Pakistan cut, forcing upon our troops the most ignominious retreat since Korea in 1950 (a massive air evacuation this time around, leaving a wealth of military gear).
Ranked from best to worst, here are our four basic options going forward:
• Best. Instead of increasing the U.S. military "footprint," reduce our forces and those of NATO by two-thirds, maintaining a "mother ship" at Bagram Air Base and a few satellite bases from which special operations troops, aircraft and drones, and lean conventional forces would strike terrorists and support Afghan factions with whom we share common enemies. All resupply for our military could be done by air, if necessary.
Stop pretending Afghanistan's a real state. Freeze development efforts. Ignore the opium. Kill the fanatics.
• Good. Leave entirely. Strike terrorist targets from over the horizon and launch punitive raids when necessary. Instead of facing another Vietnam ourselves, let Afghanistan become a Vietnam for Iran and Pakistan. Rebuild our military at home, renewing our strategic capabilities.
• Poor. Continue to muddle through as is, accepting that achieving any meaningful change in Afghanistan is a generational commitment. Surge troops for specific missions, but not permanently.
• Worst. Augment our forces endlessly and increase aid in the absence of a strategy. Lie to ourselves that good things might just happen. Let U.S. troops and Afghans continue to die for empty rhetoric, while Pakistan decays into a vast terrorist refuge.
A reality check
In any event, Pakistan, not Afghanistan, will determine the future of Islamist extremism in the region. And Pakistan is nearly lost to us — a fact we must accept. Our strategic future lies with India.
President Obama pitched Afghanistan as the good war during his campaign, while rejecting our efforts in Iraq as a sideshow. He got it exactly wrong. Now our new president either needs to lay out a coherent, detailed strategy with realistic goals, or accept that, by mid-2002, we had achieved all that conventional forces could manage in Afghanistan.
We don't need hope. We need the audacity of realism.