It's no coincidence that some of the most explosive Taliban violence coincides with the first phase of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The successful attacks on top Afghan officials are about more than just Taliban boldness and their need to establish credit for driving us out, but also about changing loyalties.
Obama has made it clear that Karzai has no future, and that means that a growing realignment is happening in Afghanistan. With two sides to choose from, one that is on the way out, and one that is on the way in, a new tide of support is flowing away from the American backed government and to the Taliban.
Much the same thing happened in the early days when the Allied assault smashed the Taliban and made it clear that they had no future. As the war dragged on, warlords and tribal leaders changed sides, and collected money and weapons from both sides. Now that we are preparing to leave, they are going to be lining up on the winning side.
Afghanistan is the Muslim world at its most elementally tribal with fewer of the mock civilized interfaces between the Westerner and the ragged edge of the frontier than are found in Pakistan or the Middle East.
The Taliban took power there in the same way that Mohammed once did in the Arabian desert, by packing together ruthless brutality and a fanatical religious ideology. Their coalition was based on naked power and terror. Ours was based on foreign aid, elections and soldiers digging wells. It's not that we never had a shot, but that we were trying to impose order on what is really a permanent state of chaos.
Even before the choppers have begun taking off, the chaos is reclaiming the land. The Islamists will return, celebrate their victory, and fall into another civil war. Without foreign troops there to target, they will not be able to count on the same level of aid from the Muslim world. Which will move the clock back to before the American invasion.
Kabul will hold out for a while, but eventually it will fall, and all the NGO's, the girls we taught to read, the elections and the laws will all go back under the Burqa. A counter-Taliban force will remain and the fighting will continue. Though the new conflict will now extend into Pakistan.
Karzai is not a dead man yet. If he survives every betrayal that comes his way, he may still hold out for years. And American advisers and arms shipments may still keep flowing his way. More likely we will try to replace him, and even more likely we will fail. The story will play out the same way that it did in Vietnam and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Not because it was foretold, but because we lost sight of what the mission was.
The same mission creep took hold in Afghanistan and Iraq, that has taken hold in most of our wars. We stopped fighting to destroy an enemy and began trying to win the hearts and minds of the population. No longer as a means, but as an end.
Instead we believed that by exporting our system, we could implement a state of stability. Transform Afghanistan from a collection of villages and hovels run by gangs and large families into something more modern. The effort was doomed to fail. Afghanistan is not a modern state. It isn't a state at all. Like most of the Muslim world it's a patchwork of families and clans with borders and a flag stuck on top. To run it, is a matter of managing chaos.
The Taliban are celebrating the victory of their system over our system. But how could it have been any other way. Afghanistan is not an entity in and of itself. Its ties to Pakistan and Iran meant that the Taliban would not go away until the Pakistani and Iranian regimes did. We could have cut the supply lines, but that is something we chose not to do in Korea. We haven't done it in Iraq. And that turned the Taliban into the proxy armies of Iran and elements of Pakistan.
This particular mistake is one that we have kept making over and over again in every war from Korea on up. The Cold War mentality of refusing to be drawn into larger conflicts has bled us and gotten us into unwinnable conflicts against guerrillas who are cannon fodder for their masters. We rack up kill ratios against the cannon fodder, who retreat and regroup, accept fresh supplies from their backers, recruit more peasants, and come back at us again.
Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Four wars and the same lesson that General MacArthur was drummed out for trying to get through Truman's thick head, has still gone unlearned. After almost a 100,000 dead, we still suffer from a political and military leadership that refuses to understand that the micro-conflict is unwinnable without either confronting the puppet masters or driving out the civilian population who provide shelter and manpower to the insurgents.
Losing Afghanistan won't help. But then we never had Afghanistan, what we had was an alliance with a coalition as enduring as two year old's attention span. What we had was the delusion that we could change the Muslim world by carpet bombing them with democracy and the trappings of civilization. But our drive for democracy was based on a fundamental error. We had not taken into account that the difference between us and them, was not that we had voting booths, and they didn't. But that we were civilized and they weren't.
How can we possibly learn the answer, when we keep asking the wrong question. Afghanistan was the wrong question. And the answer is the Taliban. But the right question wasn't how do we stabilize Afghanistan, it was how do we find the people who did this to us and teach them and their backers an enduring lesson.
There was a brief shining moment when we understood that this was the question. When it was "You're either with us or against us" and "Give us Bin Laden's head". When politicians seemed to have reverted to the common sense approach of the man on the street. But then the experts took over. And the question became one of reconstructing Afghanistan in the name of some greater good. Now the Taliban are giving the final answer to that question.
The only true moral of war is that you shouldn't begin one that you aren't going to fight to win. And we didn't fight to win. We fought for hearts and minds. And now when the troops go, we will discover how little those hearts and minds were worth all along.
The end of our Afghan experiment is approaching. We leave behind not democracy, but more caches of weapons and equipment, and boot prints in the sand. Armies have come to Afghanistan before. And gone. And had we stayed on mission we could have gone out winners. Instead the deaths of thousands of Americans become a footnote to Obama's reelection campaign.