What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

Earlier this month, conservative flamethrower Ann Coulter turned her fire onto her own side. Coulter lit into Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney by name, and a raft of other conservatives by implication, because they called for the gaffe-prone Republican National Committee chairman to resign for declaring that the Afghanistan war was a “war of Obama’s choosing” and “not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in”:

Keep in mind, again, [inadudible] our federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This is not, this was not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in. It was one of those, one of those areas on the total board of of foreign policy of the middle east, that you would be in the background, sort of shaping the, the changes that were necessary in Afghanistan, as opposed to directly engaging troops. But it was the President, who tried to be cute by half, by flipping the script, demonizing Iraq while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan. Well if, if he’s such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that’s the one thing you don’t do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan. Alright? Because everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan that do not [indaudible] ...

Michael Steele’s comments seemed daft to most. Anyone with any memory whatsoever recalls that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan began as a direct response to the 9/11 terror attacks during the Bush administration. We’ve been engaged in low intensity warfare against the Taliban and al-Qaeda there ever since.

It seems odd that Coulter, of all people, would defend Steele. After all, it was Coulter who famously wrote two days after the attacks of 9/11, while the country was still reeling in shock: “We should invade their countries, kill their [Muslim] leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

But her stance isn’t inconsistent, even if her column isn’t one of her best. Coulter’s complaint is based upon her understanding that the Bush administration took out the ruling Taliban and their infrastructure, removing al-Qaeda's safe haven and putting Osama bin Laden on the run ever since. After that, she seems to be under the impression that we relegated Afghanistan to little more than a holding action while we took on the state-sponsored terrorism of Iraq and dealt with the fallout of insurgency and near civil war as we tried to rebuild their nation.

Iraq is won. It has been, as much as any insurgency has a notable end time, since the surge brought the Sunni insurgents into the government and forced the Shia militias underground. But Coulter supports Steele's statement, because she reads it as saying that Afghanistan is Obama’s war since he chose to change how the conflict was being waged.

That is an intellectually consistent argument. I can’t defend it, and will not try. I do understand her ultimate point, however -- even if we should have all asked it far earlier. What are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan? What does winning look like? If our goal isn’t to win, then why are we asking our troops to fight and die?

These are legitimate questions. We cannot expect to nation-build for a culture that does not tend to think of itself as a nation. We cannot expect diplomatic efforts to succeed with their “national government,” when its ability to project power is less than that of some city councils and school boards.

Instead, we’ve poured billions into a corrupt government, propping up a pro-Western Hamid Karzai simply because he smiles as he pockets our money. We’ve occupied and then left regions of the country. Sometimes we’ve been all but pushed out as in Wanat and the Korengal Valley. We’ve poured in men and material only to find our technology ill-matched to the primitive conditions, and our men in isolated outposts all but marooned by geography and neutered by bizarrely politicized rules of engagement.

Everyone remembers Coulter’s biting post-9/11 quote, but few remember the entire paragraph as written:

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.