There was an obvious symmetry to President Obama’s surprise ap pearance in Afghanistan last week on the first anniversary of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals. However, the president’s presence raised an obvious question that went unanswered. Why, following the death of bin Laden and the fracturing of al-Qaida, will America still have troops in Afghan istan in 2014, 13 years past the cataclysmic events in America of September 11, 2001?
Some Republican leaders accused Mr. Obama of politicizing the anniversary of bin Laden’s death in this election year. This from a party whose president adorned a military flight suit to announce the end of a war in Iraq that had in fact scarcely begun. The eradication of the terrorist leader is an event worth remembering, and the resolution of the war in Afghanistan that began because of the actions of that terrorist leader is an issue much on the minds of Americans.
The president, however, continues to act on the assumption that there is justification for America to be fighting in Afghanistan through 2014 and to maintain a military presence long after that. Al-Qaida is a force to be reckoned with, but it has scattered and is more of a presence in Yemen than in Afghanistan. Fighting the Taliban -- whom the United States supplied with weapons when the religious warriors were plaguing the Soviets -- is not our mission and would not be a winnable mission if it was. America should not engage in nation-building either, particularly in a loosely connected, tribal country that has defied those attempts for centuries.
Just as significantly, the United States cannot impose solutions on a country that sees America as part of the problem. Bombings that inadvertently kill civilians may be inevitable in a war zone but they are extremely bad public relations and they have happened with alarming regularity. In recent months we have had a slaughter of civilians by a rogue U.S. soldier, a burning of a Quran along with the trash at a military base and the publication of photos of American soldiers defiling the war dead. There is no rebuilding fences with the Afghan people after these unfortunate incidents no matter how many apologies are offered.
The president’s partner in signing agreements with Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is notoriously corrupt and a fickle ally to say the least. He is more accurately the best ally, in his venality and incompetence, that the Taliban could have. Evidence emerged last week that the Pentagon has downplayed the number of incidents of Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on Americans. And of course, the money poured into Afghanistan daily is money desperately needed here at home, where nation-building in terms of education and infrastructure has gone wanting for too long.
This war was a noble cause a decade ago, but when the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq, whatever long-term good that may have been realized in Afghanistan was doomed to go unfulfilled. What good the U.S. could accomplish has been, and only more tragedy will ensue the longer the U.S. remains.