The situation in Afghanistan is heart-breaking. The Taliban are not legitimate negotiating partners in Doha. They are obviously determined to take as much ground as they can. Unfortunately, they are seizing their moment while the West steps back. This is very tough for me to write, but after the repeated miscalculations we have made over the years, could this have gone any other way? I am doubtful. Our best opportunity to step back was likely after the first year or two of operations when the Taliban were on the run. That situation might have presented moderate voices with the space they would have needed to seize control of the country. Regrettably we will never know because we never gave them that space. We kept trying to drive the train (overtly and covertly in some cases).  

I just spent some thirty years working on behalf of the U.S. government, toiling in many places few get to visit, including places like Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq and in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan (I served on both sides of the border). From my perch, I note the frustration that many feel with the departure of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I feel their pain. It’s been twenty years, and this is all we have to show for it? Really? Couldn’t we just do one more thing, just add one more round of negotiations, throw in one more massive development assistance program? 

My answer is a firm no. Afghans have to govern themselves. We are Americans. We know this but we seem to have forgotten. No amount of additional American or U.N. military force or development assistance is going to fix the problems that confront Afghanistan. To the contrary, our continued military presence has been inadvertently fueling instability and insurgency. I don’t like thinking that might be true, but it is. I met plenty of Afghans who wanted the U.S. to stay. But I met even more Afghans who doubted our presence was going to work. They recognized that foreigners running around their countryside with guns was a prescription for some to push back.

This is a hard pill for many of us to swallow. Gains have been made in some sectors, particularly in the education of women. It is horrifying to think that those gains are at risk. I am not so sure the Taliban will succeed, and I am hopeful the Government of Afghanistan will find a way to prevent that. However, if the Taliban do manage to take Kabul, I suspect they will find governing a tougher problem now than when they were last in power. Afghanistan is not the same country when they ruled in the 1990’s.

Gains have been made but also a long list of unintended but consequential errors, not unusual when an army marches through a country. Many are convinced that there is something called “American Exceptionalism” and that whatever sins we committed in places like this can be forgiven because we were fighting for the greater good. To some extent, I would actually agree with that thinking, however it will never change the perception to those on the ground. For many poor Afghans who have lost loved ones in the violence, including U.S. and NATO operations, they are being squeezed. They want peace but there is no unity in their positions. They are not fully behind Ghani. They weren’t fully behind Karzai. Many are certainly not behind the Taliban but unfortunately some are. We can’t change that problem with our military presence. Our presence is a recruiting tool for the Taliban.

I served in Afghanistan, not in the military, but along-side our military colleagues as the Senior Civilian Representative for Regional Command East. I covered many of provinces along the border with Pakistan. Embedded with the First Cavalry I spent a lot of time talking to Afghan Governors and others as we attempted to implement development assistance and governance programming. I was fortunate that I was not cooped up in the Embassy like so many of my colleagues. I was able to travel about. I witnessed firsthand a few successes, but too many tragedies and horrors.

One of the takeaways I gained from that experience: After twenty years, we have accomplished all we can. If the Afghan government can’t hang on or keep the Taliban from taking over after twenty years, then we will have to consider a version of containment. Pulling out of Afghanistan does risk giving space to extremists but the difference is that we know the risk and can work to mitigate from the outside.  Armed western soldiers inside the country are just going to propagate the problem and acerbate it. This day of our leaving had to come.

I know some argue that we stayed on in Europe and Japan long after World War II so why can’t we stay on in Afghanistan. I would argue that those conflicts do not equate to the challenges of the Middle East and South Asia. The Cold War is no comparison to the situation in Afghanistan. We are applying our military ability to a political and cultural problem. It’s not going to work. Most of America knows better too.   

The Taliban are as entrenched as ever in Afghanistan. I will always remember a conversation I had with an Afghan provincial governor who among many things kept encouraging me to make sure I told my military brothers not to attack certain Taliban communities because they were actually good people and he had grown up with them. He knew them. Whatever the motivation of that governor, the point is still true today, years later. Westerners are not going to be able to change the equation.  Only Afghans can govern their country. 

To my military and some former diplomatic colleagues who are determined to hang on: it’s been twenty years. Time to let go. We need a new approach. I understand the frustration with the lack of progress and the threat extremism represents. However there is nothing more we are going to accomplish with a western force on the ground. The Afghan army is going to have to sort out some of this on their own. Can you imagine a reverse scenario of sorts?  Armed Iranian soldiers in Kansas?  Of course not. Ridiculous right? Take it from this former Ambassador and Social Anthropologist:  More Afghans than we might care to imagine see the situation in the same ridiculous terms.

The problem is never about war fighting. We have the uncontested best military in the world.  However almost all of the casualties I saw did not come from direct contest but through covertly placed bombs or sniper action. Most of our soldiers could not tell friend from enemy. I grew up not all that far from Afghanistan and I couldn’t. I promise you, our troops from California to Oklahoma and New York couldn’t either.

Our new strategy is going to look very different. We are not ceding territory to an enemy. But Afghanistan was never going to look like a western democracy. Eventually it might look like one of their neighbors: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Iran, warts and all.  We will find some practices distasteful. We might have to denounce some behavior including human rights abuses and religious intolerance (which will be a problem).  Nevertheless, we can manage those relationships however difficult at times.  Afghans have minds and ideas of their own, just like the Chinese, Russians, Argentinians, …..and well actually just like everyone.  We have been managing those relationships largely successfully for years.  Time to move on America – time to change our approach and policy.

About the Author:  Paul Folmsbee is a former U.S. diplomat and Ambassador. He is a trained Social Anthropologist and has served in conflict and war zones around the world.