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Taliban, Al-Qaeda Awaiting U.S. Afghanistan Exit

By Jeffrey Goldberg
April 16, 2012 7:00 PM EDT
Jeffrey Goldberg
Jeffrey Goldberg

The multipronged attack carried out by a Taliban faction in Afghanistan last weekend, including sustained raids in the capital’s diplomatic quarter and on Parliament, was meant, the New York Times reported, to “undermine confidence in NATO and Afghan military gains.”

Well, mission accomplished, as they say. Although Afghan security forces, with help from NATO, eventually ended the assault, the Taliban’s ability to penetrate Kabul, which has been advertised as Afghanistan’s safest city, suggests a certain tenuousness to the overall security situation.

And the attacks raise an overarching worry: that the Obama administration, which is increasingly focused on withdrawing from Afghanistan, is acting according to an arbitrary timetable rather than conditions on the ground -- which is to say, whether or not the Taliban is actually losing. In doing so, they seem to be avoiding the hardest questions.

By this September, the administration plans to withdraw the remaining 23,000 troops that were part of the “surge” ordered in 2009. A complete withdrawal is planned by 2014. The American people, we have been told, are tired of spending money and lives on the conflict formerly known as “the good war.”

The Hard Questions

But what will they think in 2015, if broad stretches of southern and eastern Afghanistan have once again come under Taliban control?

The ability of the American military and intelligence community to monitor these areas will be enhanced, especially compared with the pre-Sept. 11 era. The administration plans to continue using drone strikes and small groups of special forces to fight terrorism there. But what if that isn’t enough to keep al-Qaeda -- which has been devastated, but not destroyed -- from once again using these regions to train and to execute plots?

What will Americans think when they learn that many of Afghanistan’s women have been forced back under the burqa, and girls have been forced from schools built with U.S. tax dollars? Why, they may ask, did we waste so many lives and so much money in a conflict we decided we couldn’t win? Why did we stay in Afghanistan for so long without a coherent strategy?

I asked a senior U.S. military official to explain how we’ve reached the moment, after 10 years of war, when it seems plausible that the Taliban could one day rule the very same parts of Afghanistan they dominated before.

He proposed a modest counterfactual: Imagine, he said, if Western leaders had announced in December 2009 that the surge would come to an end not according to a predetermined timetable but only when the Taliban had been defeated. Such steadfastness could have caused the Taliban to quickly collapse.

Now, of course, the U.S. is encouraging negotiations with the group it once sought to destroy.

The Obama administration’s goals seem muddled even to the people who fund the war. Last week, I visited Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “The policy in Afghanistan is confusing to me, and if it’s confusing to me, who does this every day, it’s got to be confusing to someone whose primary responsibility is to raise their family and go to work,” he said.

I asked Rogers what, specifically, he found so confusing. His answer was pleasantly clear-cut. “The administration is talking about negotiating with the very people we’ve been trying to discredit for 10 years,” he said. “We’ve been trying to gain the support of people who are scared to death of the Taliban, and now they’re scared to death that we’re trying to bring the Taliban back.”

‘We Were Winning’

Rogers, a former Army officer whose brother is a two-star general, doesn’t think it’s too late to inflict a strategic defeat on the Taliban. But he argues that this isn’t a goal shared by the Obama administration. “We were winning on the ground. I was one of the few who came out in favor of the president’s surge. Yes, people say we’ve been there for 10 years, but it’s really been only since 2009. The surge is the real date. We had good intel then that the Taliban commanders were losing the fire in the belly. We saw what was happening, but guess what? We brought them back to life -- we said we were leaving, we don’t care what the circumstances are. It’s a well- known idea that you never go to war thinking that you can’t win.”

The administration has been hinting lately that vital U.S. interests are no longer at stake in Afghanistan. At the moment, when al-Qaeda is mostly based in Pakistan, a putative American ally, this argument has some merit. But Rogers argues that premature withdrawal from Afghanistan could mean that parts of it are eventually reconstituted as terrorist safe havens.

He also said something that, given his hardnosed reputation, surprised me: The U.S. made a promise to Afghanistan’s women, and we’re on the verge of breaking it.

“We said to these women that we’re with them,” he said. “What are we saying to them now? I was in one of the first congressional delegations into the country, and I met a woman, a doctor, who spoke better English than I do. She has a U.S. medical degree. She took me to her hospital, a children’s hospital. She told me that when she first heard of the fighting in 2001, she took off her burqa and walked something like 25 or 30 miles to the hospital. She had basically been a prisoner in her husband’s house for three years, and now she was doing surgeries.”

He continued: “And I get angry now because we’re walking away from her. We’re inviting the people, the Taliban, back, the very people who shoot people in soccer stadiums, who chop peoples’ heads off. What message does that send to her? That she might as well put on her burqa and walk back to her husband’s house?”

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

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To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.

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