The United States recently announced a “thaw” in relations with Pakistan, with the US agreeing to burn $500 million to provide the needed warmth. Meanwhile, most observers have for some time now seen quite plainly that Pakistan has been playing a double game, with the all-powerful ISI taking US assistance with one hand and stroking its longtime mujahedeen allies with the other. (Their only real interest throughout, of course, is keeping our good friend India out of Afghanistan, the general threat from India being a cause to which a great deal of that US baksheesh will be diverted.)
How much longer can we tolerate this state of affairs? It is increasingly obvious that we will never build a stable democracy in Afghanistan; we are merely exhausting ourselves to prop up a corrupt regime that meanwhile uses the security we provide to run a lucrative drug trade and make mineral-rights deals with the Chinese.
Last December I wrote:
The problem is that the situation is impossible; there simply are no good options. Never have I felt more pessimistic.
If we leave, the Taliban will overrun the country again, al-Qaeda will set up shop as before, and nuclear-armed Pakistan will totter. The world will know, with certainty this time, that America (and the West generally) is a fickle ally that has no real stomach for a fight. As night falls, those in Afghanistan who have put their trust in us will find they have backed the wrong horse, and they will pay. The brave women and girls who have risked all just to go to school, to read a book — and who have been, for their trouble, beaten and murdered and burned with acid — will be ground into dust.
If we stay, we will never “win”. Afghanistan will be our tar-baby forever. We will never install a functioning democracy there, or a government free of corruption, or a reliable military dedicated to its preservation: these things cannot be done, any more than you can teach wolves to knit, or make butter from stones. We will fight and spend and bleed and die there forever.
Recognizing that we are now of modest means, and so cannot afford to hold our tar-baby forever, we have announced that we will begin leaving in the middle of 2011. This makes things easy for the Taliban, who have all the time in the world; they simply need to harass us patiently for 18 months, and then, as we step back, they will step forward.
We fight an enemy that is utterly unafraid to die, but we, good souls that we truly are, are afraid to kill. Our military is by far — by light-years — the strongest, best-trained, best-equipped, most sophisticated fighting force the world has ever seen; no enemy on Earth could hope to face us in full-scale conflict and live. But no army has ever won a war this way. Neither will we.
So: We have three options, none good:
A) We can leave now. B) We can stay and bleed forever. C) We can stay and bleed for 18 months, then leave anyway. (The fourth option, to cry “Havoc!”, and unleash our colossal war machine in all its incandescent fury, is not an option.)
We are certainly no better off now than we were then. What shall we do?
Perhaps it is time to do this: if Pakistan wants to be friends with the mujahedeen, then we let them. We leave. We provide no more aid to Pakistan, not a penny; instead we go to the other nations in the region who have, if anything, an even stronger interest in what happens next than we do — Russia, China, and India — and we work out a collaborative arrangement for keeping this Islamic fever-swamp quarantined, a task we will attend to with inflexible resolve. That Pakistan is in possession of nuclear weapons is a frightening complication; even the threat of retributive annihilation might not be much of a deterrent.
This is hardly an attractive proposal. As mentioned above, we have very few options, all bad. The only serious alternative, historically preferred but hard for the modern West to stomach, is the brutal and ruthless application of truly overwhelming power. I don’t think we’ll be doing that.