If Charles Dickens were writing "A Tale of Two Cities" about today's Afghanistan, his opening line would be abbreviated: "It was the worst of times."
"Sunday was a particularly deadly day in Afghanistan," reported the Associated Press this week. "Roadside bombs and militant attacks killed seven American soldiers, 19 Afghan civilians and seven Afghan policemen.
"Violence erupted again on Monday as militants launched suicide attacks on two police headquarters and carried out other assaults that left 20 people dead—three policemen, an Afghan prosecutor, two children and 14 attackers, according to officials."
But when are there ever peaceful stretches in Afghanistan anymore? This year, 176 American military personnel have been killed, bringing the total to more than 2,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. At the current rate, 2012 will be the third bloodiest year of the war.
We have also lavished upward of half a trillion dollars on the effort at a time when we are not exactly flush with revenue. All our sacrifices, however, appear to be in vain. Afghan civilian casualties tripled between 2006 and this year.
And these may be the good old days. After 11 years, the longest war in American history, we have begun the process of leaving. Our combat troops are supposed to be gone by the end of 2014. Opponents of withdrawal say it will endanger our gains, and that the only way to assure success is to stay even longer.
But what reason is there to believe another 11 years would achieve what the past 11 didn't? "Judged by any yardstick—its ability to protect its officials, provide basic services and control corruption—Afghanistan has made little or no headway since 2001," wrote Yale University security scholar Jason Lyall last year.
We have been down this road before—spending huge sums of money as well as thousands of lives trying to build a semblance of an honest, competent, halfway democratic government in a country beset by determined homegrown militants. It didn't work in Vietnam, and it hasn't worked in Afghanistan.
Why that should be is a puzzle. Things started out brilliantly in 2001, with a quick, seemingly complete defeat of the enemy. In 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld exulted: "The Taliban are gone. The al-Qaida are gone."
But things drifted off course. We let Osama bin Laden escape. Pakistan furnished aid and refuge to the insurgents. We shifted our focus to Iraq. President Hamid Karzai proved unable or unwilling to establish security and curb corruption. Before long, the enemy was back with a vengeance.
By now the Taliban should be renamed the Resilient Taliban, because that is the adjective most often used to describe it. The maddening paradox of this war is that Karzai and his security forces have had the benefit of vast amounts of outside help, while the groups fighting the government (though aided by Pakistan) have gotten much less. Yet there is no doubt that the insurgents are more formidable fighters.
For the U.S. military, reports Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, our mission means "training Afghan soldiers, training Afghan trainers and building the places to train them in. It means equipping more than 350,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen with guns, uniforms, Humvees, gasoline trucks, food, helicopters, hospitals and spare parts. … The cost of this crash exercise in army-building is around $11 billion a year."
For all our trouble, most Afghan army units still can't operate independently. Their attrition rates are still high. Once we're out of the fight, Filkins says, "the Afghans could end up ceding large tracts of territory to the Taliban."
How does the enemy endure and often prevail despite its enormous disadvantages? How have they turned illiterate, undernourished Afghan peasants into a tough, dogged fighting force that refuses to be defeated?
They apparently have something our friends don't have: bottomless supplies of motivation. They also seem to have more support among the people in the countryside. The longer we stay the more pronounced the discrepancy becomes.
Much of their motivation is resentment of foreigners with guns and anger at military missions that inadvertently kill innocents. So maybe when we leave, many insurgents will lose interest in the fight. Maybe government troops will step up when we force them to take over.
Maybe not. Things could go very badly for the government and very well for the Taliban. But if we've learned nothing else, it's that whatever needs to be done for Afghanistan, we can't do it.