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 ever more frequent air strikes and night raids that hit innocents along with insurgents are starting to undercut public support for the foreign forces. "We don't want the foreigners to leave," says women's-rights activist Shoukria Haider. "We know they are the only thing standing between us and a return to civil war. But the longer [they] stay, the more violence we see, so we are caught. We want the violence to end too."

A Nation No One Could Build?
The easy narrative is to blame Afghanistan, a country that managed to repel both the British and Soviet armies in their primes and frustrate all manner of occupiers. But to throw hands up in exasperation and say Afghanistan, with its tribes and conservative traditions, is an ungovernable place impervious to change is to cower behind a convenient historical falsehood. Before the 1979 Soviet invasion, my mother-in-law wore Chanel suits and held a senior position with the national airline. My father-in-law worked for a functioning government that was slowly yielding development and progress.

Even today, my Afghan friends run successful media companies and work in a vibrant telecommunications sector. Sure, they are urban exceptions in a country whose rural population is still mired in poverty, but their successes could point to a future Afghan success, if the country is given the tools it needs. Afghans never saw the post-9/11 foreign presence as an invasion. They desperately wanted what the U.S. was offering — democracy, governance, human rights and financial independence. Even the most conservative Afghans recognized the need for schooling their young daughters. After 15 years of war and five more of Taliban rule, they were ready to regain their place among nations.

But instead of a Marshall Plan, the U.S. has come up with a patchwork of short-term solutions that seemed designed to showcase the appearance of progress rather than create enduring change. More damaging, perhaps, it has looked the other way when Afghan government officials, whose salaries are paid by American funds, flagrantly indulge in corruption and graft. Afghans are equally at fault: police indulge in petty bribes, power brokers rape, and parliamentarians steal land with little risk of legal or political retribution. The resulting lawlessness has Afghans across a broad spectrum of society waxing nostalgic for the era when a single Talib in the town square would dispense justice with a quote from the Koran and a flick of his lash. "Even as a liberal, I can say that the Taliban time was better," says Gholam Sadiq Niazi, a Soviet-trained technocrat in Afghanistan's oil-and-gas industry. "It doesn't matter if I have to go to mosque five times a day or grow a beard, as long as we have rule of law."

Niazi is no radical. He speaks from a comfortable, middle-class apartment in central Kabul. Financially, he says, he is better off now than in 2001, but what's the point, he asks, if someone could murder him tomorrow for his property and get out of jail with a bribe or political connections? The sister of an 11-year-old rape victim whose politically connected attacker was never prosecuted once shouted at me with rage and frustration, "If the Taliban were still here, that rapist would have already been executed by now."

Few Afghans today support the wanton violence of the reincarnated Taliban insurgency, and history shows that the Taliban too were no strangers to corruption — but the fact that both women and religious moderates speak well of their reputation for security shows how shallowly rooted the support is for 10 years of Western assistance.

As much as some Afghans clung to the hope that talks earlier this year with the Taliban would bring peace, few believed they would result in anything more than another deal between armed political elites. And even those hopes evaporated when a Taliban peace envoy detonated his explosives-stuffed turban while embracing the head of the National Reconciliation Council. Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed instantly in a clear demonstration of how the Taliban truly feel about making peace: They don't need to compromise. They just need to wait.

So Many Exit Strategies
Nearly nine years after I set my first, nervous foot on Afghan soil, my battered Nokia flashlight phone (essential in a country where, even in the capital, power outages are still common) is filled with the numbers of long-departed diplomats, soldiers, press officers, consultants and development experts. I too am only a temporary visitor these days. My husband and I left a year ago after we reluctantly came to the conclusion that our beloved city simply wasn't a safe enough place to raise our child. Each time I return, I find that the barricades are bigger, the razored garlands of concertina wire more numerous and thick. Anxiety and fear nibble at the edges of my conversations with ordinary Afghans. The indomitable Afghan pride has been shoved aside by canny calculations on how to get out — family in Pakistan, a student visa for Europe. Many Afghans too have exit strategies.

Military officials say things will get worse before they get better and that it will take time for the shaky Afghan forces to find their footing. Meanwhile, the Taliban have taken their campaign of rural intimidation to the cities, where their highly organized, complex suicide attacks undermine whatever confidence is left. NATO officials blithely assert that the suicide attacks are a sign of desperation, proof that the enemy is no longer capable of mounting a frontal attack. That may be the case, but the Taliban's ability to recruit volunteers for "martyrdom," as demonstrated by their profligate use of three or four at a time, indicates to me a far more terrifying kind of strength.

Even as the Obama Administration assures the American public that the drawdown of troops is on track, U.S. diplomats and military officials in Kabul weave a hopeful narrative of progress. Few of us on the ground see it that way. It used to be that American withdrawal was conditioned on success. Now, it seems, withdrawal has become the definition of success. If that's the case, success in Afghanistan will feel a lot like failure.

with reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington and Walid Fazly and John Wendle / Kabul

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