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Column: U.S. Will Leave Afghanistan to Warlords and the Taliban

“We wanted a clear message from Obama that the U.S. will continue to support democracy in Afghanistan,” Fawzia Koofi, a lawmaker and human-rights activist, said this month. “It’s the only alternative to Talibanization.”

Her honesty revealed the plain truth, without official pieties and doublespeak: The United States is quitting Afghanistan, and the morning after it does, the Taliban will begin the reconquest of that tragic land. After 11 years, and a toll of more than 2,000 Americans killed, 18,000 wounded, and the expenditure of more than $600 billion, what is perhaps the longest U.S. war is winding down.

That good war of necessity, set up as a willful contrast to the war of choice in Iraq, is in Washington’s rearview mirror. No stirring prose attends that war. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to Washington for an official visit on Jan. 11, the mood was sober and resigned. He could promise immunity for the U.S. forces that would stay in his country, but this would not change the course of things. A cunning warlord — a job requirement — Karzai knew it was the endgame in Kabul for the Americans.

President Barack Obama, who had made Afghanistan his just war of necessity, had won re-election and he insisted that the conflict was meant to avenge what befell the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. A year into his first term, he had doubled down in Afghanistan, ordering a surge of his own. The potential damage to his presidency from war in the Hindu Kush was contained. The Republicans couldn’t outflank him, for they, too, knew that this was an unpopular war.

But Obama had been shrewd. Early on, he had stripped the Afghan campaign of exalted claims. Not for him was the passion of President George W. Bush about the Iraq War spreading “freedom” throughout the Arab world. Obama had spoken of a “civilian surge” of experts and technocrats from all walks of life descending on Afghanistan and tackling its overwhelming troubles. This was shelved and forgotten. A bloodless realism guided the enterprise.

We would end the war “responsibly,” Obama would repeatedly observe. He was without illusions about the man in Kabul. In Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, the president asks and answers the central question about the local “partner” in that war. “Why should Karzai change?” The Afghan could go on with his ways, Obama said, and the “U.S. would be stuck tending to the country for him.”

American soldiers could labor and sacrifice in Afghanistan, but the flights, eight a day, from Kabul to Dubai would haul off the cash for the warlords to prepare for the time when the American centurions would be gone.

There is kitsch and legend about the country being a “graveyard for empires,” about the codes of the Pashtuns. But decades of mayhem and corruption have hardened and wrecked the culture. Plainly, the warrior bandits live off strategic rent, the subsidies that come to them from foreign donors caught up in the messiness of Afghanistan.

You would think that these proud Afghans would want the departure of the Americans, but they dread that day. Luck had come to them when al-Qaida, Arab jihadis and financiers had nested among them. Like a magnet, the Arabs had pulled in the mighty Americans with their gear and deep pockets. A decade of this lucrative trade for the Afghans in power has been heady.

In 2009, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul at the time, Karl Eikenberry, explained the Afghan and Karzai ways in a cable he sent to Washington. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending war on terror and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

Say what you will about the Afghan warrior bandits: In the decade Americans spent among them, they never told us sweet things about our time, and our role, in their country. This was “imperialism” with a new twist. The clients dependent on imperial protection never wearied of second-guessing the protectors.

Karzai himself must be unique in that regard in the long line of unsavory despots the U.S. had supported over several decades in developing countries. For Karzai, the coalition forces were predators inflicting pain and ruin on the Afghans. At times, the foreign protectors ranked lower in esteem than the Taliban.

In November 2011, Karzai gave the quintessential Afghan statement about the place of the Americans and their coalition partners in his homeland. “The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen.” All the lion would tolerate is for the outsiders to “just guard the four sides of the forest.”

Well, soon the lion will be on his own. No Americans will be under any compulsion to dwell on the meaning and the ways of the loya jirga, the assembly of elders. We will be spared anthropological recitations about the “Pashtunwali,” the code of the Pashtuns, for we have already seen through the pretense and the kitsch.

There remain earnest Afghan women such as Fawzia Koofi and those schoolgirls we glimpse in their uniforms when our television crews venture into that country. One shudders in fear and anxiety for them. They won’t be able to board the flights for Dubai. They will be there when the pitiless soldiers of the Taliban, like the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, sweep in and overwhelm all that the foreign protectors had left in place.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of The Syrian Rebellion.