The Unwinnable War

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Adam Ferguson / VII for TIME

Members of the fledgling Afghan national police guard a provincial archaeological site.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. flung money at quick-impact projects designed to win Afghan hearts and minds as much as applause from taxpayers back home. Americans were development dilettantes lacking a clear long-term vision. Roads crumbled within years of their completion, the product of low-quality cement brought in by shady subcontractors. Security contractors paid bribes to the Taliban to stop them from attacking fuel convoys. In a country without wheelchairs, medical clinics were equipped with handicapped-accessible ramps. Schools were built, but no teacher-training colleges were established to staff them. And when the insurgency continued to grow, the U.S. first said agriculture was the solution, then a bigger army, then reintegration of Taliban foot soldiers.

By some measures, the narrative of Afghanistan over the past decade should be upbeat. Afghans are seeing greater prosperity, increased access to basic health care and more children in school. American assistance has helped boost the attendance in elementary and secondary schools for girls from nearly zero in 2001 to more than 3 million and for boys from 1 million to over 5 million. Twice as many Afghans have electricity now as in 2001. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the streets of my neighborhood swarming with girls in white headscarves making their way to class. They want to grow up to be President, they tell me, or doctors, or pilots so they can see the world. In the past year, the U.S. has trained and deployed 23 Afghan prosecutors and judges to districts that had neither, and it plans to raise that number to 52 eventually.

But these gains have come with caveats. Life expectancy has gone down since 2001. Outside the cities, those kids in school have nowhere to go after sixth grade. The measures of American success in Afghanistan have been couched in kilometers of roads built, money spent, insurgents killed. The Afghan National Army is judged not on its ability to fight but on the number of recruits trained. The metrics should tell the story of a nation rising from the ashes; the truth is that the country is just steps from the precipice.

The economy, which was averaging 10% growth largely because of annual injections of international aid, has slowed to a crawl. Foreign and private investment has stalled, and real estate prices in Kabul have been slashed by a third. And as attacks on the capital have increased, the economy has nose-dived. "Our economy depends on security," says Mohammad Azim, who runs an international cash-transfer office in Kabul's old money-exchange market. "When there is no security, everyone sends their money abroad. So business is good for me but bad for Afghanistan." The situation will only worsen, he says, the closer it gets to 2014. When the foreign forces depart, the support industries, from private security to trucking and construction, will collapse.

A Battlefield with Few Victories
The U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, might have deemed last month's deftly orchestrated terrorist attack on the embassy "harassment," but his glib assessment of an assault that paralyzed the capital for 19 hours, took 16 innocent lives and demonstrated the militants' ability to penetrate even the most heavily guarded areas of the capital with weapons in tow has failed to convince Afghans that they are safe. Not long afterward, I got an e-mail from my local assistant, who was in Sweden for a three-month fellowship, telling me he wasn't returning. A bright, energetic law student who speaks in idiomatic slang learned from American troops, he had often voiced his dreams of making a difference for his country. No longer. The uncertain life of an illegal migrant seeking asylum is more appealing.

One of the fundamental pillars of the U.S. exit strategy is the assumption that the Afghan army will be able to stand up as the U.S. withdraws. Afghans are good soldiers, and brave, but as Reed points out, the timeline of their success extends far beyond the American deadline to leave. Last month, the Pentagon halved its budget over the next three years for training, paying and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces. A reduction in their already low salaries — about $200 a month for an Afghan army private — could lead to wider defections. One soldier, picking up his salary at Kabul's money-changing market, looked doubtfully at the wad of cash in his hand when asked what he would do if his pay were cut. "I'd quit," he said simply. Another soldier said he would probably join the Taliban. He was only half joking. "I hear they pay better," he said.

U.S. attempts to rapidly boost the number of alternative security forces may be undermining stability. A report released last month by Human Rights Watch documents alarming levels of abuse by the Afghan Local Police, a force created by the U.S. in remote areas where more-formal security forces are spread thin. These militias have been accused of rape, murder, extortion, armed land grabs and, in one gruesome case, hammering nails through the foot of a suspected teenage insurgent. David Petraeus, who commanded the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force before he stepped down to head the CIA, told the U.S. Senate in March that the program was "arguably the most critical element in our effort to help Afghanistan develop the capability to secure itself."

And then there was the surge.

Petraeus' attempt to replicate his Iraq-war strategy in Afghanistan has had mixed results. In late 2009, in an effort to permanently defeat the Taliban insurgency, Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, boosting the number on the ground to 100,000. Yet the consensus is that the surge has not been the success it was in Iraq and that in some ways it has failed as a strategy. The military situation in the south has improved, but security in the eastern and northern sectors of the nation remains sketchy. Security in some provinces has actually deteriorated. The Taliban have shown a capacity for daring raids — for example, springing about 500 detainees by way of an underground tunnel from a prison near Kandahar in April — that suggests they may be gaining strength. "If you are looking at things over the summer, it's hard to point to a lot of good news coming out of Afghanistan," says a former Obama Administration security official in Washington. "There's no denying that."

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