As the gateway to the fabled land of Hind, Afghanistan is one of the bloodiest places in history. Along the trail from Herat to the Khyber Pass lie the bones of a myriad adventurers, missionaries, traders, would-be conquerors and the people who lived there. The list includes Persians, Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Huns, Uzbeks, Chin and a hundred other groups searching for the Land of Five Rivers. The one constant is that few thought of founding a kingdom or dynasty in Afghanistan. Maybe they knew something because Afghanistan is the graveyard of a thousand empires.

It is the only country to foil not one but the two greatest military powers of the day. The Soviet Union was in fact shattered by the experience (1979-89), breaking up a couple of years after the retreat from Kabul. The United States of America invaded and occupied Afghanistan beginning 2001 at the head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-dominated coalition of over 50 states. In the 18 years since, Operation Enduring Freedom is down to some 13,000 US troops and small contingents from a couple of other powers. It seems the Afghan experience is not for them either. 

This period saw four presidential elections and two presidents (Ashraf Ghani just won a second term) as well as three parliamentary elections, but real power still lies with the regional warlords who often double as governors, terrorist groups like the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. The US, desperate to wake from this nightmare, continues to talk with these and other equally shady players for a deal so it can claim with a straight face that it has done its duty. It is so heartily sick of its Sisyphean labours that even the almost inevitable revival of Terror Central—as Pakistani expert Ahmed Rashid described the tribal region of north Pakistan and adjoining Afghan territory—makes no difference. Writing “Mission Failed” is no deterrent either.

America’s self-proclaimed war on terror spans three presidencies and has taken the lives of 3,500 coalition soldiers (US figure is about 2,400) with at least 25,000 wounded. Over 3,800 US contractors have also been killed. Afghanistan has lost over 1.5 lakh soldiers, civilians and militants to the conflict and another 3.5 lakh are estimated dead of indirect causes. It does not include the casualties in northern Pakistan. But this is by no means the entire bill. The US taxpayer has shelled out $2 trillion so far to keep the Taliban at bay.

Realism was absent from all these calculations. No one appreciated the magnitude of the task before them. As retired General Douglas Lute put it, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

How well has it worked? Outside the large towns the Taliban are king. In the provinces, the governors are the arbiters and make deals as they see fit, with the Taliban, drug runners, assorted militant groups from the central Asian republics or Xinjiang, even Kabul if they’re feeling indulgent. If the US pulled out today the Taliban would be in Kabul six months later.

How did it get here? “Senior US officials failed to tell the truth throughout the 18-year campaign, hiding evidence the war had become unwinnable,” the Washington Post says in an extraordinary report called “The Afghanistan Papers”, based on documents from a federal project into the causes of the failure. The dozens of interviews with US officials, military commanders and policy makers show there was no overall plan for Afghanistan after the victory. This central incoherence was reflected in the various visions given by various policy makers, whether it was stay-and-rebuild or win-and-run.

Realism was absent from all these calculations. No one appreciated the magnitude of the task that lay before them. They tried to turn a country where power has always been dispersed into a centralised society, a Herculean Labour if ever there was one. As retired General Douglas Lute put it, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Several of the officials interviewed said “it was common at military headquarters in Kabul and the White House to distort statistics to make it appear the US was winning the war”.

Afghan reconstruction is undoubtedly a success story, with schools, bridges, roads and other amenities, more children in school, especially girls, and better health care. But this veneer of progress will vanish if the Taliban take over. That is where it seems headed in yet another iteration of peace with horror, a long-standing tradition begun in Vietnam. A pullout at this stage does no one any favours, except the Taliban, but the lies have finally caught up with reality and there’s little choice for the administration but to let go.