Even as the United States has ramped up its military presence in Afghanistan with the Obama Surge, other forces are poised to withdraw: the Dutch and my friend Liza. And if Liza pulls out, the war is all but lost.
The Taliban have succeeded in toppling one government, though not yet the one in Kabul. The ruling coalition of the Dutch government collapsed over the issue of whether to withdraw the Netherlands' 1,600 soldiers from Afghanistan, and the next government that forms is more than likely to pull the troops out, perhaps before the year is over. More than 20 Dutch troops have died in the effort to defend Oruzgan province and public support for continued participation in the NATO coalition has been falling, not only in the Netherlands but across Europe. Economic recession, plus rising casualties in Afghanistan and a sense of the endlessness of the struggle there have led to the war's increasing unpopularity in Europe and elsewhere. Canada has said its troops are coming home at the end of next year, and these cracks in the NATO alliance may spread. And last week's bombings in Kabul, carried out by the Taliban not against military targets but against foreign aid workers, caused my friend Liza to reassess her own participation in Afghanistan's reconstruction effort.
Liza, a charming Italian-French woman, has been toiling in the ministries of Kabul for more than six years, trying to help, trying to show solidarity with the Afghans, trying to help them help themselves. She has stuck it out much longer than any coalition soldier. But in last week's bomb blasts Liza may have heard the call to personally withdraw from Afghanistan. This is not the first Kabul bombing of her long experience there, but this time, she says, "I'm even more shocked than the other ones. Maybe because I'm starting to count on two hands the number of friends or acquaintances that are now dead in Kabul. In Kabul, not in the battlefields." Liza is no quitter, and she is not afraid. "If they think they (whoever they are) can intimidate me, they are wrong!" she says. But on the other hand she is "not the Rambo type" and knows she can't fight the Taliban in the streets of Kabul.
Nor can she singlehandedly drain the sea of corruption she is swimming in. Yes, the Afghan government is considered one of the most corrupt in the world, but the U.S. and other Western intervenors have set the table for the banquet of corruption, swamping dirt-poor Afghanistan with billions of free-range dollars and private contractors who build things that Afghanistan neither wants nor needs, at staggeringly high cost. Often the contracts are not even fulfilled, but the contractor still walks off with the loot.
To my mind Liza represents an important element of the West's pledge to rebuild Afghanistan. She is one of the many ordinary civilians from various parts of the world who have come to Afghanistan as a matter of principle, to help a nation of people struggling to survive and to build a better future. Like Liza they are smart, resilient, courageous and committed - and they need all those qualities simply to get to Afghanistan, flying long distances on creaky airlines like Ariana and Air Tajikistan (known locally as Tragic Air) - not to mention living and working there for months and years. And after all her years in Afghanistan, Liza can't understand what's happening around her, what the U.S. and NATO are actually trying to do. "I do not know what this new strategy is, what is the point of it," she says, "and why the situation seems to go backwards instead of forward."
So in the next couple of weeks Liza is leaving Kabul and going back to her real home to give it a good think. I know she will experience withdrawal pains, and her conscience will gnaw at her and tell her she should be back in Kabul fighting the good fight. But maybe this time the sound of those bomb blasts will echo loudly enough in her memory to remind her why she left. And if she leaves and stays away, there seems little hope for anything that might look like success - never mind "victory" - in Afghanistan.