You Can’t Go Home Again

The biggest takeaway, the biggest foreign-policy fact, of the past decade is this: America has to be very careful where it goes in the world, because the minute it’s there—the minute there are boots on the ground, the minute we leave a footprint—there will spring up, immediately, 15 reasons America cannot leave. The next day there will be 30 reasons, and the day after that 45. They are often serious and legitimate reasons.

So we wind up in long, drawn-out struggles when we didn’t mean to, when it wasn’t the plan, or the hope, or the expectation.

We have to keep this phenomenon in mind as we chart our path in the future. It’s easy to start a war but hard to end one. It’s as simple as that. It’s easy to get in but hard to get out. Even today, in Baghdad, you hear that America can’t leave Iraq because the government isn’t sturdy enough, the army and police aren’t strong enough to withstand the winds that will follow America’s full departure, that all that has been achieved—a fragile, incomplete, relative peace—will be lost. America cannot leave because Iraq will be vulnerable to civil war, not between Sunnis and Shiites, they tell you now, but between Arabs and Kurds, in the north, near the oil fields.

America is scheduled to leave Iraq this December, of course, but everyone seems to be waiting for Nouri al-Maliki’s government to request an extension. (A longtime observer told me he thought Prime Minister Maliki would not ask, in part because he assumes that if he gets in trouble the U.S. will come back.) Meanwhile, another observer told me, the December hand-off from the U.S. to the Iraqi government will actually be more like a hand-off from the Defense Department to the State Department, with the part of U.S. security forces played by contractors from Uganda.

In Afghanistan, America cannot leave because it is the 9/11 place, the place that helped 9/11 to happen. America cannot leave because, as the iconic Time cover had it, the Taliban will cut off women’s noses and brutalize them in other ways. America cannot leave because al Qaeda will return, fill the vacuum left by our departure, and create a new terror state. America cannot leave because of turbulent, dangerous Pakistan. America cannot leave because from the day we arrived, we invested blood and treasure, and it cannot have been in vain. America can never leave because American troops always bring their kindness and constructiveness with them, and their rule of law. Innocent people will be defenseless without them.

There are always a million facts and forces arrayed against the idea of America leaving. So America has to watch where it goes.

In the troubled future we are entering, America must be prudent as never before, know and respect its own interests and limits as never before. It must be careful of the lives of its soldiers. It must be careful, even, of its purse, which is something we haven’t always worried about, but must now, and not only because of the crash and the deficits. What if what just happened in Japan had happened on the San Andreas fault? What if it were a broken American nuclear reactor? You have to keep some wealth and force in reserve, you can’t just assume you’ll always be lucky.

These are the thoughts I brought back from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. I left with the sound of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s speech at West Point ringing in my ears. The time for big counterinsurgency efforts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggested, has passed: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as Gen. McCarthy so delicately put it.”

Who could argue? No one I spoke to in Iraq or Afghanistan protested Mr. Gates’s remarks. They are attempting to do their jobs through the end stages of both conflicts. In Afghanistan especially, the professionalism of the U.S. troops—we were at Bagram and Kandahar, at forward operating bases; they flew us at night in the dark in C-130s—is more than impressive, it is moving. They are well-trained, well-educated, skillful, and they would die for you.

Two points worth noting: You are aware in Kabul and elsewhere that the war is the work of a coalition, that the Brits are there and the French, and they fight. Everyone seems to have admired the Aussies; there is sympathy for the Poles, who were treated particularly badly by Afghans because their uniforms and faces reminded them of the Russians. And the logistical challenge of the surge—the scale, scope and speed of the movement of men and matériel—has the look of a small managerial masterpiece.

But in terms of a fully believable long-term strategy, the U.S. seems to be scrambling to find a thread that was lost somewhere between 2003 and 2009. We are nation-building in a nation that shows little sign of wanting us to build it. The military surge has been accompanied by a “civilian surge”—representatives of State, U.S. Agency for International Development and provincial reconstruction teams—that the Army, in an Orwellian locution, has taken to calling “The Uplift,” in hope you will too.

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What is ahead for all of the troops is a hard time that those on the ground say they believe will be decisive. Gen. David Petraeus referred to it this week in congressional testimony, but officers in briefings mentioned it every day: With winter over and the fields, including the poppy fields, harvested, the Taliban are about to launch a new offensive. They mean to answer the American surge with a “spectacular” surge of their own—suicide bombings, assassinations, IEDs, attempts to take back cities such as Kandahar. The American strategy is to beat them back and, in the process, break the back of the insurgency, forcing the Taliban to the bargaining table to take part in a negotiated political settlement. No one can explain exactly how this would happen, or what the elements of such a settlement might be.

The same people who tell you a settlement is the only way out, that the war will be resolved not militarily but politically, tend also to mention, later in the conversation, that the rising generation of the Taliban, the new ones coming up, are believed to be more radical and extreme than those who came to power in the 1990s and were sent packing, for a while, in 2001-02. So we’re hoping people who are even more extreme than the earlier Taliban will ask for a negotiated peace?

Meanwhile, support for the war among the American people is falling. The Washington Post this week had a poll saying two-thirds no longer think the war is worth it. Intensified fighting and higher casualties this spring and summer will likely further erode U.S. support.

America has now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Union was; we mark the 10th anniversary of our presence in October. The surge is on, and we’ll know more in six months. But I’m thinking of a Pashtun taunt sometimes thrown at Americans: “You have the watches, but we have the time.”