After all the mistakes, the cost of “winning”—significantly reducing the strength of the Taliban, stimulating local resistance, training a national army, working with Pakistan to shut down al Qaeda havens across the border—may now be too high. The number of troops that would be necessary to “win” may be far greater than the number the president has committed and far greater than the American people would be willing to commit. And if that is true, then the continuation of the war can’t be justified—for it is one of the key criteria of a just war that there be a realistic possibility of achieving a just peace.
Things have not gotten better for most Afghans in those years, and for many of them, who live in the battle zones or who endure the rapaciousness of government officials, things have probably gotten much worse. At the same time, however, there have been some gains, in parts of the countryside and in the more secure cities. American and European NGOs have been doing good work in areas like public health, health care, and education. Schools have opened, and teachers have been recruited, for some two million girls. Organizations of many different sorts, including trade unions and women’s groups, have sprung up in a new, largely secular, civil society. A version of democratic politics has emerged, radically incomplete but valuable still. And all the people involved in these different activities would be at risk—at risk for their lives—if the United States simply withdrew. Given everything we did wrong in Afghanistan, the work of these people—democrats, feminists, union activists, and teachers—is a small miracle worth defending against the Taliban resurgence.
Indeed, I think we have an obligation to do that—and I also think that most of these people would agree (they should be asked). And it is here that there is a realistic possibility of success: the cities can be held, civil society fostered, and NGO projects in the countryside protected, even with fewer troops than the president has committed. But for this work there is no obvious end; a year and a half won’t be enough.