Within weeks of September 11, the United States launched military operations in Afghanistan in order to remove the Taliban regime and deny Islamic-terrorist networks a key base of operations.  In subsequent years, as the focus of the Bush administration moved to Iraq, the Afghan operation was relegated to the neglected “other war.”  Its initial objective—ostensibly limited and attainable—had morphed into an exercise in nation-building underpinned by grossly wasteful development programs.

By the end of George W. Bush’s second term, the situation on the ground had settled into a stalemate.  The Taliban were able to reestablish their more or less permanent presence in the majority-Pashtun rural areas in the south; the “allies” held the cities and kept the main roads open; Hamid Karzai and his corrupt cronies pretended to be a real government, while repeating the mantra of “Afghan leadership, Afghan ownership.”

The Obama administration decided to give Afghanistan higher priority, however.  Iraq was to be treated as “Bush’s war” and eventually terminated on terms far from satisfactory.  Starting in early 2009, the U.S. government committed significant additional financial and military resources to Afghanistan.  By early last year, key civilian officials and officers—such as the former commander, Gen. David Petraeus—claimed that progress was being made, albeit still “fragile and reversible.”

The new strategy was twofold.  One objective was to transfer complete responsibility for security to the Afghan National Army and police throughout the country and to withdraw U.S. and NATO forces by the end of 2014.  The other was to facilitate a power-sharing agreement that would bring the Taliban into the political mainstream, thus creating conditions for durable and stable peace in the country after the American withdrawal.

That strategy started collapsing last February, when a wave of mass protests—precipitated by the inadvertent “improper disposal” of some old Korans at an American military base—indicated that the fight for Afghan hearts and minds was going badly.  The violence claimed dozens of lives, including two U.S. Army officers murdered at their post inside the Afghan Interior Ministry—supposedly one of the most secure locations in the country.  This incident prompted Marine Gen. John Allen—commander of U.S. and NATO forces—to pull his personnel from Afghan government buildings, while NATO advisors in Kabul reduced contact with Karzai’s ministries to telephone and e-mail.  This effectively made it impossible to pursue the process of the Afghanization of security tasks, which was contingent on close cooperation at the level of political decisionmaking.

Nonetheless, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told NPR on February 27 that “we are still partnering with Afghan security forces across the country.”  And Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the United States is taking “the long view” and declared that the momentum of Taliban insurgents has been reversed.

The fundamental lack of a true “partnership” with the Afghan forces was not new.  In May 2011, a U.S. Army study established that murders of Westerners by Afghan national-security forces did not represent “rare and isolated events.”  Between July 2010 and May of last year, the study found, more than 30 NATO personnel were killed by Afghan soldiers or policemen.  Even before the incidents in February, there had been little trust between U.S.-led coalition forces and their local Afghan “allies.”

Then came March 11 and the killing of 16 unarmed Afghan villagers by a deranged U.S. Army sergeant.  The reaction in a country already seething with hate for all things American was predictable.  In a symbolic gesture, the Taliban occupied the village where the killings took place, to gain new recruits.  “They handed out weapons to people and told them to be brave and take on U.S. forces,” an intelligence official told Reuters.  “Then they warned the cleric in a government mosque to tell people to rise up.”

Five days later, President Karzai called on U.S. troops and their NATO allies to leave Afghan villages and confine themselves to major bases.  Making his announcement just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was ending a visit to Kabul, Karzai further asked for the withdrawal to be accelerated to the end of 2013.  Lying though his teeth, he asserted that the “Afghan security forces have the ability to provide security in the villages of our country.”

Within hours, the Taliban announced they were breaking off preliminary talks in Qatar.  Their move makes sense.  Devotees of the Afghan caliphate have no reason to negotiate regarding what they strongly believe will be theirs a year or two from now.

Unlike his fundamentalist foes, Karzai was bluffing.  He cannot survive an American withdrawal, swift or otherwise.  When the Taliban took power in 1996, former president and one-time Soviet ally Mohammad Najibullah was tortured, castrated, and hung on a lamppost outside his palace.

The Obama administration effectively ignored Karzai and played down the Taliban walkout from the talks, portraying it as part of the normal “ups and downs” of any such negotiations.  White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no plans to change the current strategy.  George Little returned to the rostrum at the Pentagon to opine that Karzai’s demand reflects his “strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” which is “an American goal as well.”  Gen. John Allen told the House Armed Services Committee on March 19 that efforts to hand over security to the Afghans and wind down the war were still on track.

Curiously, those claims contradict the December 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan, which warned that any “gains” had been undercut by “pervasive corruption” and that the war was still essentially a stalemate.  The NIE also concluded that the Taliban remain determined and undefeated.  Moreover, the “State of the Taliban”—a classified NATO report based on thousands of prisoner-interrogation records and leaked to the media in February—warned that once the coalition withdraws, “the Taliban considers victory inevitable.”

The notion that U.S. troops would be able to hand over security to Afghan forces and leave the country in reliable hands in 2014 has always been unrealistic.  The timetable was predicated upon successful Afghanization of operational tasks, but the effort has been badly behind schedule all along.  Last summer, Army Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell admitted that the plan to train Afghan soldiers and police to replace the 100,000 American troops remained plagued by high attrition, corruption, attacks on allied troops, and assassinations of Afghan officials by “rogue” members of government security forces.  He admitted that only 1 of the 84 infantry battalions trained and fielded by the coalition was ready to operate independently.

Left to their own devices, those units will likely disintegrate, with a significant minority of their rank and file joining the Taliban.

A surgical operation against Al Qaeda, a brief occupation of Kabul in the aftermath of September 11, and a vigorous supervision regime based on pilotless aircraft should have been enough to demonstrate American resolve, to neutralize terrorist threats, and to satisfy public opinion at home.  Making Afghanistan peaceful, democratic, and prosperous was always an impossible goal, and therefore no “strategy” based on it could be successful.  That war always was, and still is, a folly.

The American folly is on par with the costly blunders by the British in 1839 and the Soviets in 1979, but it is less forgivable because the lessons of history have been ignored.  In all three cases, a great power sent troops to Afghanistan, occupied Kabul, and installed a puppet leader.  In all three cases, the leader had little authority with the influential tribal chieftains, inadequate forces to coerce them, and insufficient means to buy their complicity.

In the first two cases, the disengagement was messy and undignified but preferable to reinforcing defeat.  In the third case, the intervening great power will likewise cut its losses and leave.  Since this is going to happen anyway, it is better to act immediately than to stick to an artificial timetable.  Karzai has painted himself into a corner, and his offer provides a welcome excuse to act now.  “Tens of thousands of people will be killed here if the Americans pack and get out,” says Afghan MP Mirwais Yasini, who is convinced that the Taliban would seize power again in just a matter of weeks.  He may be right, but that is an Afghan problem, not ours.  Unlike in Iraq, the United States did not make things any worse by intervening in Afghanistan.  There is no moral imperative to clean up the mess before leaving.

“I don’t anticipate . . . that we’re going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have,” President Obama said on March 20.  The “plan” is no good.  A new one is needed: withdraw and watch.  The primary U.S. interest is to ensure that Al Qaeda and its affiliates will not use Afghan territory to threaten other countries.  Ensuring lasting peace and stability in the country is theoretically desirable, but it is neither essential to U.S. security nor likely to be attained.

A future intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Taliban and their Pashtun tribal base on the one hand, and Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other elements of the Northern Alliance on the other, should be left to the parties concerned.  Any U.S. involvement in facilitating the framework and format for power-sharing talks would be detrimental to their success.  Confidence-building measures aimed at bringing disparate Afghan factions to the table cannot work if one or more of the parties have no confidence in the builder.

The American interest demands a swift acceptance of the fact that the Afghan mission is over.  From now on, the debate about that mission’s strengths and weaknesses should be the preserve of military and diplomatic historians, postmortem analysts, and self-serving memorialists.  The decisionmakers’ energies should focus on the technicalities of a swift withdrawal and on the preparation of contingency plans to neutralize any future terrorist threat.

All along, the Taliban only needed to survive to win.  They have survived.  Within weeks or months after the last American soldier leaves Kabul, the Afghan National Army will collapse, Karzai will be killed or exiled, and his godforsaken and worthless country will revert to its usual state of Hobbesian premodernity.  So be it.  Pity the dead.