The war in Afghanistan — the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win — has become an aimless absurdity. It began with a specific target. Afghanistan was where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda lived, harbored by the Islamic extremist Taliban government. But the enemy escaped into Pakistan, and for the past seven years, Afghanistan has been a slow bleed against an array of mostly indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces that we continue to call the "Taliban." These ragtag bands are funded by opium profits and led by assorted religious extremists and druglords, many of whom have safe havens in Pakistan.
But the incremental successes are reversible — schools are burned by the Taliban, police officers are murdered — because of a monstrous structural problem that defines the current struggle in Afghanistan.
The British troops in Helmand are fighting with both hands tied behind their backs. They cannot go after the leadership of the Taliban — still led by the reclusive Mullah Omar — which operates openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta, just across the border. They also can't go after the drug trade that funds the insurgency, in part because some of the proceeds are also skimmed by the friends, officials and perhaps family members of the stupendously corrupt government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Helmand province is mostly desert, but it produces half the world's opium supply along a narrow strip of irrigated land that straddles the Helmand River. The drug trade — Afghanistan provides more than 90% of the world's opium — permeates everything. A former governor, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, was caught with nine tons of opium, enough to force him out of office, but not enough to put him in jail, since he enjoys — according to U.S. military sources — a close relationship with the Karzai government. Indeed, Akhundzada and Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali — who operates in Kandahar, the next province over — are considered the shadow rulers of the region (along with Mullah Omar). "You should understand," a British commander said, "the fight here isn't really about religion. It's about money."
Another thing you should understand: thousands of U.S. troops are expected to be deployed to Helmand and Kandahar provinces next spring. They will be fighting under the same limitations as the British, Canadian, Danish and Dutch forces currently holding the fort, which means they will be spinning their wheels. And that raises a long-term question crucial to the success of the Obama Administration: What are we doing in Afghanistan? What is the mission?
We know what the mission used to be — to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and destroy his al-Qaeda command. But once bin Laden slipped away, the mission morphed into a vast, messy nation — building effort to support the allegedly democratic Karzai government. There was a certain logic to that. The Taliban and al-Qaeda can't base themselves in Afghanistan if something resembling a stable, secure nation-state exists there. But the mission was also historically implausible: Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. It has been governed for thousands of years by local and regional tribal coalitions. The tribes have often been at one another's throats — a good part of the current "Taliban" uprising is nothing more than standard tribal rivalries juiced by Western arms and opium profits — except when foreigners have invaded the area, in which case the Afghans have united and slowly humiliated conquerors from Alexander the Great to the Soviets.
There's more. Please go read.
I'm certainly no expert on what's going on in Afghanistan, but my take is that we, meaning an uninterested Bush, had a chance to do some good there at one time but chose to royally screw the pooch instead. Whether we can pull anything constructive out of it is the big question.