In December 2009, President Obama decided to send thirty thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. At the same time, he announced that he would start pulling those troops out by July 2011. In other words, the West continued to send mixed signals to Afghanistan and Pakistan: We love you, we love you not. America’s ambivalence was likely because of its amorphous goal—with Al-Qaeda long on the run from Afghanistan and now being picked off by drones in Pakistan, the new focus was on creating some kind of perception of success in the region as quickly as possible so that the U.S. could leave. The strategy seemed to be this: Overwhelm the enemy with superior military force, train some Afghan mopes as police and army, make a political deal with members of the Taliban (who would for some unknown reason make a deal despite the fact that they seemed to be holding all the cards), call it stability, and get the heck out.
In the minds of many in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who were by necessity playing a much longer game, the Americans’ endgame was an interval of stability instead of actual stability, and the interval would surely be followed by a civil war, with Pakistan starring as evil puppet master in the background. In this environment, with the West halfway out the door, the Taliban could be seen as peacemakers, as the suitor who would actually commit.
So it was hardly a surprise when U.S. and NATO progress was much slower than anticipated. Attempts to manipulate tribes, as had been done in Iraq, were frustrated by the complicated Afghan tribal system and by competing loyalties. U.S. troops still managed to win hand-to-hand battles—if they couldn’t beat a bunch of guys with Kalashnikovs and sandals, the military had much bigger problems than anyone suspected—but a highly publicized Marine offensive in the obscure Helmand district of Marja ended up a draw because of poor follow-through. The planned U.S.-led offensive in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, was amended and postponed until it appeared to be more of a playdate. Civilian casualties and corruption continued to alienate the countryside. Roadside bombs and guerrilla attacks continued to pick off NATO troops and Afghan officials. And even as the military drove out the Taliban from various communities, there were still not enough troops to make a permanent stand and no credible Afghan government to fill the gaps. The West’s civilian effort was even less effective than the military one. More than eight years into this war, no single agency coordinated all the Western aid or development, least of all the UN.
Karzai, meanwhile, imploded. He allegedly threatened to join the Taliban, pushed out several competent top officials, and consolidated power among his family members and closest allies, the ones who never said no. A particularly loud-mouthed former UN official publicly accused Karzai—now often described as “erratic” in news reports—of being on drugs. I was convinced that wasn’t the problem, and that certain drugs might helpfully silence Karzai’s demons. But regardless, the gulf between Kabul and the West widened, to the point that Karzai and his backers actually suspected the United States of sponsoring terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. His public courting of the Taliban—apparently he had found an address, even if most of his entreaties were ignored—needed to be seen through his anti-Western lens. Convinced the United States was against him, convinced the United States was leaving, Karzai started planning for his own future. That’s likely the major reason he wanted to make a deal with elements of the Taliban—he saw their Pashtun base as the only way to ensure his own survival. His suspicions spread like a contagion through the government. Foreign consultants practically had to submit to colostomies to get visas; restaurants that served alcohol were frequently raided and even shut down; police at checkpoints spent more time shaking down foreigners than they did on hinky Toyota Corollas.
As Afghanistan skidded off the rails, Pakistan was close behind. The Pakistani army launched new offensives against militants in the tribal areas, but as usual, targeted only those groups fighting the Pakistani government or whoever had the misfortune to be the number-three member of Al-Qaeda at the time. The Pakistani Taliban grew bolder, attacking at the heart of the Pakistani army, at national headquarters and the mosque where top military officials prayed on Fridays. Anti-American sentiment reached a kind of zenith. The State Department had a very hard time finding Pakistani police officials willing to travel to the States for training because of ISI warnings to stay home. After all, the ISI asked while strong-arming the police, whose side were they on? America’s or Pakistan’s?
At some point, I realized the horrible truth—the United States and its allies could win every single battle in Afghanistan and blow up every single alleged top militant in Pakistan, but still lose this war.
In my new position, as a press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, I was often asked what I thought should be done about the mess in South Asia. I was sure of two things: that a deal among governments and militants would never hold in that harsh environment, and that our current plan with its expiration date was doomed to failure. The United States would be better off bringing everyone home than sticking to a compromise, to the impassable middle road. The only workable solution to the region’s many problems was a long-term commitment from the world, with no end date in sight, focused on building actual governance systems rather than propping up various personalities. Only a long-term plan would prevent the region from falling into further chaos, allowing a potpourri of militants, including the largely diminished Al-Qaeda, from eventually creeping back to Afghanistan and claiming a major propaganda victory.
Coming back to the States was an experience similar to having my spleen removed while on laughing gas. Parts of reentry were pleasant. Others were like being cut open without anesthetic. At one point Sean called, concerned about how I was adjusting. He was in Africa on a project, his first time traveling on a story after leaving the Taliban’s clutches in Pakistan.
“So, are you finding yourself spending too much time at home, by yourself?” he asked.
“And you’re drinking too much?”
“And you’re dancing around your apartment a lot, listening to loud music, doing a lot of cocaine?”
“Um, no. Perhaps that was you.”
But he was right. It was no picnic coming off the adrenaline of a war zone cold turkey, or losing that sense of importance that infused even the most banal activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I felt like I was trudging through life, waiting for the “what next,” craving airports and a fix. I constantly felt uneasy, like I should be doing something else. Out to dinner with friends, I sensed some unknown deadline hanging over my head. I angered easily. I could not relax. I could not sit still. I could not connect. I had more in common with many U.S. soldiers than I did with my family. I talked often to Farouq, who earned straight A’s in his first semester of a master’s degree. Eventually his family was able to join him in his new Western home. He wanted to return eventually to Afghanistan to help lead the country; he worried that it wouldn’t be safe for his children.
With the passage of time the pull lessened slightly, and the adrenaline monkey on my back shrank to more of a sea monkey. The longer I was in the States, the farther away the war seemed. Maybe it was the loft party in Brooklyn with a misshapen-apple mirrored disco ball dangling from the ceiling and a giant inflatable rat in the corner, but New York started to feel more like home.
Still, the region wouldn’t let me go that easily. An amateurish bomb was planted in an SUV in Times Square, just blocks from my apartment, and for hours, my neighborhood was shut down. The wannabe bomber clearly had attended the jihadi short course in Pakistan as opposed to summer camp; he used the wrong kind of fertilizer and left his keys in the car. Improbably, the Pakistani Taliban—a group that was very skilled at bombing, much more so than the Afghan Taliban—was blamed for the botched effort. The Taliban was stalking me! Even if I was moving on, clearly they could not.
Then, in May 2010, with my fellowship almost over and unemployment looming, the call came. It was a major news organization. Would I go back to Kabul? My first thought was, Hell yes! Yes to Kabul, yes to bombs, yes to that electrical jolt I got just thinking about Kabul. Yes to chaos and crazy, yes to toga parties, yes to Kabul High, yes to insh’Allah, yes to endless cups of tea, just yes. I thought about it seriously for a few days, before waking up one morning and realizing—no. Just like I couldn’t go back to Chicago, I couldn’t go back to Kabul. I had already graduated, after all, and everyone knows you can’t go back to high school. Especially when that high school is a war zone, especially when that war zone is falling apart. I rationalized my decision: I could always go back for the class reunion, which if the past was any guide would be in another ten or twelve years, when history would probably repeat itself, when all the same players or their latest incarnations would start the dance again.