The euphemisms will come fast and furious. Our soldiers will be greeted as "heroes" who, as in Iraq, left with their "heads held high," and if in 2014 or 2015 or even 2019, the last of them, as also in Iraq, slip away in the dark of night after lying to their Afghan "allies" about their plans, few here will notice.
This will be the nature of the great Afghan drawdown. The words "retreat," "loss," "defeat," "disaster," and their siblings and cousins won't be allowed on the premises. But make no mistake, the country that, only years ago, liked to call itself the globe's "sole superpower" or even "hyperpower," whose leaders dreamed of a Pax Americana across the Greater Middle East, if not the rest of the globe is" not to put too fine a point on it, packing its bags, throwing in the towel, quietly admitting -- in actions, if not in words -- to mission unaccomplished, and heading if not exactly home, at least boot by boot off the Eurasian landmass.
Washington has, in a word, had enough. Too much, in fact. It's lost its appetite for invasions and occupations of Eurasia, though special operations raids, drone wars, and cyberwars still look deceptively cheap and easy as a means to control... well, whatever. As a result, the Afghan drawdown of 2013-2014, that implicit acknowledgement of yet another lost war, should set the curtain falling on the American Century as we've known it. It should be recognized as a landmark, the moment in history when the sun truly began to set on a great empire. Here in the United States, though, one thing is just about guaranteed: not many are going to be paying the slightest attention.
No one even thinks to ask the question: In the mighty battle lost, who exactly beat us? Where exactly is the triumphant enemy? Perhaps we should be relieved that the question is not being raised, because it's a hard one to answer. Could it really have been the scattered jihadis of al-Qaeda and its wannabes? Or the various modestly armed Sunni and Shiite minority insurgencies in Iraq, or their Pashtun equivalents in Afghanistan with their suicide bombers and low-tech roadside bombs? Or was it something more basic, something having to do with a planet no longer amenable to imperial expeditions? Did the local and global body politic simply and mysteriously spit us out as the distasteful thing we had become? Or is it even possible, as Pogo once suggested, that in those distant, unwelcoming lands, we met the enemy and he was us? Did we in some bizarre fashion fight ourselves and lose? After all, last year, more American servicemen died from suicide than on the battlefield in Afghanistan; and a startling number of Americans were killed in "green on blue" or "insider" attacks by Afghan "allies" rather than by that fragmented movement we still call the Taliban.
Whoever or whatever was responsible, our Afghan disaster was remarkably foreseeable. In fact, anyone who, from 2006 on, read Ann Jones's Afghan reports at TomDispatch wouldn't have had a doubt about the outcome of the war. Her first piece, after all, was prophetically entitled "Why It's Not Working in Afghanistan." ("The answer is a threefold failure: no peace, no democracy, and no reconstruction.") From Western private-contractors-cum-looters making a figurative killing off the "reconstruction" of the country to an Afghan army that was largely a figment of the American imagination to up-armored U.S. soldiers on well-guarded bases whose high-tech equipment and comforts of home blinded them to the nature of the enemy, hers has long been a tale of impending failure. Now, that war seems headed for its predictable end, not for the Afghans who, as Jones indicates in her latest sweeping report from Kabul, may face terrible years ahead, but for the U.S. After more than 11 years, the war that is often labeled the longest in American history is slowly winding down and that's no small thing.
So leave the mystery of who beat us to the historians, but mark the moment. It's historic. Tom
Counting Down to 2014 in Afghanistan
Three Lousy Options: Pick One
By Ann Jones
Kabul, Afghanistan -- Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you're likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the same. Some even think things will get better when the occupying forces leave. Most predict a more conservative climate, but everyone is quick to say that it's anybody's guess.
Only one thing is certain in 2014: it will be a year of American military defeat. For more than a decade, U.S. forces have fought many types of wars in Afghanistan, from a low-footprint invasion, to multiple surges, to a flirtation with Vietnam-style counterinsurgency, to a ramped-up, gloves-off air war. And yet, despite all the experiments in styles of war-making, the American military and its coalition partners have ended up in the same place: stalemate, which in a battle with guerrillas means defeat. For years, a modest-sized, generally unpopular, ragtag set of insurgents has fought the planet's most heavily armed, technologically advanced military to a standstill, leaving the country shaken and its citizens anxiously imagining the outcome of unpalatable scenarios.
The first, compromise, suggests the possibility of reaching some sort of almost inconceivable power-sharing agreement with multiple insurgent militias. While Washington presses for negotiations with its designated enemy, "the Taliban," representatives of President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council, which includes 12 members of the former Taliban government and many sympathizers, are making the rounds to talk disarmament and reconciliation with all the armed insurgent groups that the Afghan intelligence service has identified across the country. There are 1,500 of them.
One member of the Council told me, "It will take a long time before we get to Mullah Omar [the Taliban's titular leader]. Some of these militias can't even remember what they've been fighting about."
The second scenario, open conflict, would mean another dreaded round of civil war like the one in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat -- the one that destroyed the Afghan capital, Kabul, devastated parts of the country, and gave rise to the Taliban.
The third scenario, collapse, sounds so apocalyptic that it's seldom brought up by Afghans, but it's implied in the exodus already underway of those citizens who can afford to leave the country. The departures aren't dramatic. There are no helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy with desperate Afghans clamoring to get on board; just a record number of asylum applications in 2011, a year in which, according to official figures, almost 36,000 Afghans were openly looking for a safe place to land, preferably in Europe. That figure is likely to be at least matched, if not exceeded, when the U.N. releases the complete data for 2012.
In January, I went to Kabul to learn what old friends and current officials are thinking about the critical months ahead. At the same time, Afghan President Karzai flew to Washington to confer with President Obama. Their talks seem to have differed radically from the conversations I had with ordinary Afghans. In Kabul, where strange rumors fly, an official reassured me that the future looked bright for the country because Karzai was expected to return from Washington with the promise of American radar systems, presumably for the Afghan Air Force, which is not yet "operational." (He actually returned with the promise of helicopters, cargo planes, fighter jets, and drones.) Who knew that the fate of the nation and its suffering citizens hinged on that? In my conversations with ordinary Afghans, one thing that never came up was radar.
Another term that never seems to enter ordinary Afghan conversation, much as it obsesses Americans, is "al-Qaeda." President Obama, for instance, announced at a joint press conference with President Karzai: "Our core objective -- the reason we went to war in the first place -- is now within reach: ensuring that al-Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America." An Afghan journalist asked me, "Why does he worry so much about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Doesn't he know they are everywhere else?"