America's Afghan Election

The White House is upset by the Afghan election. Celebrated at first by Obama on the White House lawn as a signal success marking the country's progress on the road to democracy, it now looks like a monkey wrench thrown into the already stuttering engine of our mission there. The turn-out in Taliban intimidated areas was only about 10%. Voter fraud seems to have been endemic. And President Karzai, our wayward protégée, may be further weakened as a result. So Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke flies to Kabul for the umpteenth time and screams at Karzai that he should do an election rerun. Karzai instead bolsters his standing among his own people by thumbing his nose at Washington. Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen decries continued deterioration in the war while calling for the deployment of more American troops.

All this in what Obama calls "a necessary war" to advance vital national interests. Exactly why that is so remains obscure. In the absence of a convincing answer, the growing Afghan fiasco looks to become a tragic comedy. Tragic for the United States, tragic for the cause of containing the spread of violent jihadist organizations, and tragic above all for the people of that war ravaged land. Just as on Iraq, the conclusion that we had to escalate our intervention preceded the assessment of why and how. Three unspoken premises underlie that judgment. All are dubious. First is the notion that the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda itself are our enemy. Their supposed hostility toward us means that they will lend their active support to terrorists targeting America, and may join in themselves. Second, the implication is that their eradication as a political force in Afghanistan is essential to our national security. Finally, the Taliban must be eliminated across the border in Pakistan, too. In short, a grand project for remaking the political life of two countries where favorable views of the United States are in the single digits (6% in Pakistan).

Here is the more complicated reality. The Taliban agenda is an Afghan one. Their credo and program sets no ambitions beyond its borders. No Taliban ever has been implicated in actions outside their homeland. Today, their movement is fueled by a Pashtun sectarianism aggrieved by a government In Kabul dominated by their traditional Tajik and Uzbek rivals whom we installed in power -- except for our Karzai, himself a Pashtun. The Talban's political neutering is therefore an impossibility. Fellow Pashtuns in Northwest Pakistan are pushed into the Taliban fold by American airstrikes that enrage tribes whose members are victims, often innocent ones. Our prodding of the Pakistani leadership to abandon their policy of containment for one of military intrusions in conjunction with American air strikes has led to unprecedented upheaval that is further destabilizing the country's roiled politics. The Islamabad political elite is no more ready to risk civil war by complying with American demands than is Mr. Karzai to kow-tow to Richard Holbrooke at the risk of his political future.

The elementary truth is that we do not have the power (hard, soft or half-baked) to transform the minds and behavior of entire peoples with whom we have no affinity and who view us as aliens. Our own self-declared virtue, good intentions and self-interest do not change that one iota. We should have learned that lesson in Iraq. We want absolute security -- zero threat from the Greater Middle East. We cannot get it -- no matter what we do. Our costly, pointless wars only increase whatever real risk exists.