For several weeks now—beginning in the last days of August—people inside the Obama administration, the military, and the diplomatic community have been unusually unanimous on the subject of Afghanistan. Their refrain: we do not know what is going to happen; no one knows what is going to happen. Then they pause, and, in case we missed the point, say: we do not know what is going to happen.
This is at once unsettling and reassuring. One would like to think that the leaders of the nation have the course and conduct of an eight-year war well in hand, and it is clear that they do not. But it is also clear—and this is the reassuring part—that the president and the military are intent on a healthy and thorough review of the policy.
"Know thy enemy" is an ancient principle of warfare; in his Art of War, Sun Tzu suggests that victory will come only when warriors know both themselves and their foes. Knowing more about the enemy was the animating idea for this week's cover on the Taliban, a project led by Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau. The enemy is unapologetic and determined—which, in my view, suggests that we should give Gen. Stanley McChrystal (whom Evan Thomas profiles) the forces and resources he is asking for.
There is nothing simple about Afghanistan. Principled people can disagree, and do, about what should be done. Even many of the hawks are tremulous, and everyone is terrified of being a 21st-century member of the best and the brightest, David Halberstam's ironic description of the men at the highest levels who pressed on—and on, and on—in Vietnam. Roughly put, the debate in Washington is about whether we should undertake a significant surge in order to increase our chances of defeating the Taliban, both through combat operations and by helping to rebuild (or, in some cases, build) a measure of civil society, or whether we should pull back from nation building and focus operations on destroying terrorist redoubts.
It would be great if the latter were possible, but a turn away from the broader counterinsurgency strategy would be a mistake. A Taliban we spoke to boasts that they "will never lose this war." The task, both for those engaged in the debate and for a public that has come to oppose the war, is to prove that man wrong.
As in Iraq before the surge there, we are facing deteriorating security and a poor political situation. While the analogy is inexact—many analogies are—it is true that Iraq had been written off as an insoluble problem before Gen. David Petraeus, with troops and a political touch, helped stabilize the country. The allegations of a stolen election make Hamid Karzai a—how to put it?—less-than-ideal partner, but Nuri al-Maliki did not always look like a good bet, either. (One of the first times Petraeus met with Maliki, the Iraqi asked the American general to detain some members of his own government.)
There can be no responsible discussion of Afghanistan without taking note of what an American drawdown would mean in Pakistan, a nuclear nation riven with Islamic extremism. There is a reason Richard Holbrooke long ago began speaking of "AfPak," for American security is potentially exposed to threats from both countries. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would embolden their Pakistani allies. Mix in the nuclear element and you have moved from an anguishing crisis to an apocalyptic one.
The minds and motives of the Taliban become clear in our oral history. Sami's journey was extraordinary enough in normal times: traveling throughout northwest Pakistan, then to Quetta, to Karachi, and to the countryside south of Kabul in order to meet with elusive Taliban sources. But he undertook his travels, frequently by taxi over bumpy, dusty roads in the searing heat, -during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan while fasting from sunup to sundown. At one point he bounced from Quetta to -Karachi to Kabul in the space of three days, trying to track down his subjects. His journey was not without peril. Perhaps the most -potentially dangerous leg of the trip was the short run into town from Kabul's airport. Sami's plane from Islamabad had been delayed, as usual, arriving about 30 minutes late. As he jumped in a cab at the airport, the driver said they would have to travel into town by a circuitous route: a suicide car bomber had just blown up two or three Italian armored vehicles on the airport road a half hour before. Six Italian soldiers were killed in the explosion.
After reading the results of Sami's work this week, I suspect many of you will have a stronger sense of who we are up against—and, I hope, of why the cause is worth the fighting for.