Our Wasted Effort in Afghanistan

We should acknowledge that there are some things even the world's sole superpower can't do, and fixing Afghanistan is one of them.


The United States government and the Taliban don't agree on much, but they have found one point of convergence: Both think someone needs to get a hose and put out the flames engulfing Hamid Karzai's pants.

The Afghan president has often criticized the Americans for carrying out drone strikes that kill innocent bystanders. But over the past year or so he has started blaming us for things we didn't even do. He has gone from understandably prickly to irrationally hysterical.

Last month, he welcomed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Kabul by publicly accusing the U.S. of collaborating with the Taliban in bombings that killed 17 people. "Those bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost were not a show of force to America," he announced. "They were in service of America."

His latest claim goes further, accusing the U.S. of actually mounting insurgent-like attacks against his forces. "Karzai has formalized his suspicions with a list of dozens of attacks that he believes the U.S. government may have been involved in," reported The Washington Post. "The list even includes the recent bomb and gun assault on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, one of the bloodiest acts targeting the international community in Afghanistan."

American commander Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. called the charge "ludicrous." We have to assume that Dunford coordinated his response with Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, who said the group has taken credit for many of the incidents because "those are attacks that have genuinely been carried out by our forces."

In Karzai's mind, Barack Obama has obvious motives for this brazen treachery. One, relayed to the Post by an anonymous Karzai aide, is distracting everyone from the civilians killed in American air strikes. Another is undermining Karzai because he is too protective of his people.

Then there is the most powerful of all: our desire "to keep foreigners longer in Afghanistan," as Karzai puts it. He evidently is laboring under the misimpression that we have sacrificed more than 2,000 lives and vast sums of money because we enjoy occupying a poor, inhospitable, violence-prone country with which we have almost nothing in common.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama saluted Army Sgt. Cory Remsburg, who "was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan." But, the president noted, "he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again—and he's working toward the day when he can serve his country again."

If so, we can hope his country will find better purposes than propping up a regime headed by someone who sounds as hostile and extreme as our declared enemies in Afghanistan.

Remsburg's sacrifices were made in support of an ally that tied for the most corrupt on Earth in Transparency International's latest rankings. A new report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, The New York Times said, warns against continuing to provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year in development support when "none of the 16 Afghan ministries could be counted on to keep the funds from being stolen or wasted."

It's hard to see the value of our mission there when our partners are so impervious to our best efforts. The Special Inspector General reported that we have gotten a pitiful return on a $200 million literacy program for the Afghan army. The exceedingly modest goal—getting all of the Afghan soldiers to read at a first-grade level and half of them to read at a third-grade level—turns out to be "unrealistic" and "unattainable."

Just inducing the soldiers to stick around is often impossible. Their current attrition rate is between 30 and 50 percent. The Afghan army "is actually far from ready for transition at the end of 2014," warned Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last year. The national police, he concluded, are worse.

With the best of Afghan leaders, it would be hard to overcome all these deficits. Instead, Afghans as well as Americans are stuck with Karzai, who negotiated a deal to keep some U.S. forces in the country after this year but has refused to sign it. The longer he waits the harder it will be to make the arrangements so we can stay, laboring to turn failure into success.

Here's another option: We could acknowledge that there are some things even the world's sole superpower can't do, and fixing Afghanistan is one of them.