No, we couldn’t win in Afghanistan. But we shouldn’t leave without a peace deal.
No, we couldn’t win in Afghanistan. But we shouldn’t leave without a peace deal.
Op-Ed / Asia 1 minutes

No, we couldn’t win in Afghanistan. But we shouldn’t leave without a peace deal.

Even knowing what we now know, a hasty exit isn’t the answer.

The Washington Post’s revelatory publication last week of The Afghanistan Papers — a trove of notes and transcripts — bares the discord between U.S. officials’ public characterizations, over years and years, of progress in the war and their private doubts and disillusionment. The raw material and accompanying analysis paint a picture of a nearly two-decade-long military intervention that has failed to achieve many, if not most, of its goals, and of government officials who did not level with the American people about that failure.

The Post laid bare that winning was never clearly defined and that officials routinely, falsely told the public that they were making gains under systemic pressure to tout positive results. But the takeaway shouldn’t be that U.S. troops should now pack up and go home. It’s a tempting lesson because, after all, if the United States isn’t winning the war and can’t durably fix Afghanistan’s ills, why should Americans still be there? Making a quick departure would be an understandable impulse, but it’s one that would squander a chance to get something right. If the United States pulls out now, before trying to negotiate a political settlement — a peace deal, essentially, between the Taliban and the government in Kabul — the outcome in Afghanistan will be even worse, adding violent collapse to the intervention’s failures.

For those who didn’t experience firsthand or follow closely the news about Afghanistan over the years, it must be alarming to learn now about the frustration and skepticism of U.S. policymakers, even as they offered assurances to the public that their mission was on track. Ambition did not match reality. As the goals expanded to encompass building a modern military, establishing democratic institutions, ensuring women’s rights, rooting out corruption and more, the facts that Afghanistan was a poor, landlocked, and weakly institutionalized country with patronage-based politics and interfering neighbors blunted progress at every turn. At the same time, the U.S. military’s aversion to accepting defeat and civilian leaders’ aversion to admitting error led to strategy changes that often amounted to little more than adjusting the dials of types and degree of effort rather than fundamentally reexamining what the United States was trying to achieve and why.

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