DID YOU KNOW that shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban
tried to surrender?
For centuries in Afghanistan, when a rival force had come
to power, the defeated one would put down their weapons and be integrated
into the new power structure — obviously with much less power, or none at all.
That’s how you do with neighbors you have to continue to live with. This isn’t
a football game, where the teams go to different cities when it’s over. That
may be hard for us to remember, because the U.S. hasn’t fought a protracted war
on its own soil since the Civil War.
So when the Taliban came to surrender, the U.S.
turned them down repeatedly, in a series of arrogant blunders spelled out
in Anand Gopal’s investigative treatment of the Afghanistan war, “No
Good Men Among the Living.”
Only full annihilation was enough for the Bush
administration. They wanted more terrorists in body bags. The problem was that
the Taliban had stopped fighting, having either fled to Pakistan or melted back
into civilian life. Al Qaeda, for its part, was down to a handful of members.
So how do you kill terrorists if there aren’t any?
Simple: Afghans that the U.S. worked with understood the
predicament their military sponsors were in, so they fabricated bad guys.
Demand has a way of creating supply, and the U.S. was paying for information
that led to the death or capture of Taliban fighters. Suddenly there were
Taliban everywhere. Score-settling ran amok; all you had to do to get your
neighbor killed or sent to Guantánamo was tell the U.S. they were members of
Doors would be kicked in, no questions asked. The men left
standing became warlords, built massive fortunes, and shipped their wealth
abroad. “We are not nation-building again,” President Donald Trump declared
Monday night. Well, we never were, unless building
high-rises with looted cash in Dubai counts.
After a few years of this charade, after their surrender
efforts were repeatedly rebuffed, the old Taliban started picking up guns
again. When they were driven from power, the population was happy to see them
go. The U.S. managed to make them popular again.
Liberals then spent the 2008 presidential campaign
complaining that the U.S. had “ignored” Afghanistan — when, in reality, the
parts of the country without troop presence were the only parts at peace,
facing no insurgency against the Afghan government, such as it was. Then
President Barack Obama came in and launched a surge in troop levels while simultaneously
announcing a withdrawal — coupled with a heightened focus on night raids,
relying on the same system of unreliable intelligence that had netted so
many uninvolved people already.
And now Trump says he has a new and better strategy. He
says the U.S. needs to get Pakistan more involved — except, of course,
Pakistan’s intelligence service has been propping up the Taliban for decades.
Gopal’s book is the definitive account of how the war
went off the rails. It reads like a novel, but is an all-too-real portrait
of three Afghans as they lived through the war — a pro-U.S. warlord, a Taliban
commander, and a housewife. I’d suggest Trump read it — the book provides a
dire warning against the sort of war effort the president is about to double
down on — but it’s longer than a page, which his advisers say is the max he’ll
digest. And besides, the only thing he seems interested in is the fact that Afghanistan
has a bunch of minerals he thinks the U.S. is owed.
Before Trump spends the windfall he hopes to reap from
mining Afghanistan, he should consider one starting reality: We are now losing
a war to an enemy that already surrendered. That’s not easy to do.