The View From Olympus 16: Be Thankful for Mr. Karzai

In this Thanksgiving week, all that stands between the United States and a strategic blunder of the first order is Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Each and every one of us should be deeply thankful to him for blocking a long-term security agreement between the US and Afghanistan that makes no sense.

After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, with more than 2000 dead and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, most Americans are looking forward to leaving. Regrettably, the American government is not. It has negotiated a treaty with the Afghan government—the treaty Mr. Karzai now refuses to sign—that would keep us in the graveyard of empires for another ten years. Yes, you read that right. Until 2024, the US would maintain a force of as many as 12,000 troops in Afghanistan. We would also pay the Afghan government at least $8 billion annually, for a total of $80 billion.

Why? The question has no rational answer, in terms of US interests. Everything achievable in Afghanistan was achieved within the first 30 days of US intervention. We pushed the Taliban government out of Kabul, put in power its old opponent, the Northern Alliance, and gave the latter some weapons and some money. That’s all an invader can do.

We have not extended the Afghan government’s authority beyond Kabul, because Afghan governments’ authority almost never runs beyond Kabul (the Taliban government was an exception). We have not defeated the Taliban, because it represents the Pashtun, and the Pashtun are happy to keep fighting anyone and everyone from now until doomsday. We did drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but it quickly found a better base in Pakistan. It had in any case largely worn out its welcome before we intervened.

Having done all we could a dozen years ago, we have remained in country, losing men, spending money and accomplishing nothing of any lasting value. Now, to ice that cake, the US government wants to stay another ten years. If we do, past is prologue: we will lose men, spend money and achieve nothing more than we did in those first 30 days.

The proposed long-term security agreement makes no strategic sense. Regrettably, seen from Washington, it does make political sense, which is why Washington is so eager for Mr. Karzai to sign it. It makes political sense because neither the Obama administration nor the Pentagon want to face the fact that we have lost yet another Fourth Generation war. The question of “Who lost Afghanistan?” terrifies the politicians, as the questions of “Why do we keep losing against guys in bathrobes and flip-flops armed with rusty AKs?” terrifies the Pentagon. If you were spending a trillion dollars a year and losing, you’d be scared too.

A moral question should trump the political concerns: can we rightly send more American soldiers to their deaths and waste tens of billions of additional dollars so politicians and generals don’t have to face facts? The answer is obvious, but moral issues cut no ice in Washington. The only question politicians—those in uniforms as well as those in suits—ask is, “Is it good for me?”

So the American public is left depending on the whims of President Karzai. His refusal to sign the agreement, despite agreeing to do so, is a weak reed to lean on. A man of readily changeable mind, he will probably change it again and let us make the blunder Washington is eager to make. Mr. Karzai’s mind has been noted to be especially changeable when presented with hard currency.

The real comment here is on the American electorate. It will be too busy with turkey and football to pay attention to a treaty with Afghanistan. It won’t like losing more guys or more money in a bottomless pit. But it won’t care enough up front to prevent it from happening, as it prevented an American attack on Syria just a few months back. Then, it deluged Congress with messages saying, “No more wars.” Now, its answer to extending a losing war for ten more years is “Huh?” Our troops and our pocketbooks deserve better.