It is time to stop pretending that a residual American military presence in Afghanistan can make any difference to the future of that ancient and troubled land. The future of Afghanistan will be determined, as it has always been, by the Afghans, at their own pace and in conjunction with the countries that surround it. As the paltry results from its costly thirteen years of war have shown, in this great game, the United States has had but pittance to contribute.
A number of years ago I was skiing in Kashmir, the jewel in India's crown. It was a glorious experience. How else to describe a ski resort snuggled some 8,000 feet high in the Himalaya mountains surrounded by rugged mountain ranges that extend another 12,000 feet! Across those huge mountain ranges lay Afghanistan. If the ski trails were not world class, the luxurious personal attention more than made up for it. Each skier had his or her own porter who woke up the skiers in the morning with a hot cup of tea, after lighting the wood stove in our cabin. He carried our skis to the bottom of the rope-tows and helped put on our boots. You get the idea.
One night, it must have been around 3 AM, my porter woke me up with a hushed whisper, "Sir, the Russians are coming." The year was 1979, and on the other side of the vast mountain ranges that separated Kashmir from Afghanistan, Russian troops were crossing the Amu Darya River to begin their ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan.
(photo courtesy of SHAPE/NATO/Richard Frigge)
The radio had not yet reported the Russian invasion, nor had the newspapers. But my porter knew, in real time. Somehow as the Russian columns marched into Afghanistan, the news had travelled across hundreds of miles of forbidding landscape, using a communication system that has knit people together in these ancient lands for centuries.
The questions I'd want to ask American policy makers as they debate the future U.S. presence in Afghanistan is this: if news travels seamlessly through the impermeable borders around Afghanistan, hopping across the Himalayas, how effortless must it be for news to travel within Afghanistan. Is there anything that is planned and discussed within the "classified," "top-secret," confines of the U.S./Afghan military/intelligence complex that is really not known to the Taliban and to the other Afghan groups that want to see the United States leave their land?
My second anecdote is more recent. Three years ago I was invited to the Zurich headquarters of a Swiss bank to speak at their annual meeting. During cocktails one evening I found myself deep in conversation with a money manager from the Middle East. It was the time when real-estate business in America had been hammered by the financial meltdown. But in my interlocutor's offices business was booming. How is that possible in this interconnected world I asked him? "Money from Afghanistan is pouring in to buy real-estate in the Middle-East," he told me with a smile." All those millionaires you Americans have created are making sure they have a place to stay outside Afghanistan." He was speaking of the hundreds of millions of American tax dollars that are paid out in bribes, overcharges, protection money, and all kinds of nefarious schemes that are the cost of doing business in Afghanistan.
Or American planners might want to read Rudyard Kipling's poem Naulakha. As he observed over a hundred years ago,
Now it is not good for the Christian's health to hustle the Aryan
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of
the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: "A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the