The Not-So-Great Game

Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way BY Dr. Tim Bird, Dr. Alex Marshall. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 303 pages. $30.
A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan BY Artemy M. Kalinovsky. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.
The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers BY Peter Tomsen. PublicAffairs. Hardcover, 912 pages. $39.
The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan BY Bing West. Random House. Hardcover, 336 pages. $28.

The cover of Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way The cover of A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan The cover of The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers The cover of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan

Boy selling oranges on the street, Kabul, 2003.
Boy selling oranges on the street, Kabul, 2003.


“YOU MUST WARN YOUR PEOPLE.” The Somali had said it twice. As we spoke, his hand chased gnats, and sweat gathered on his wan face.

In a former life, Fekare had served his homeland as an army officer. He knew warlords, and the ills they wrought. Having survived the worst of Mogadishu, he had chosen an unlikely exile: a second assignment with the United Nations. We sat in the courtyard of his house in Kandahar on a blistering afternoon in the summer of 1996. It was just past the midpoint, we now know, between the Soviet exit from Afghanistan and the American entrance. He had quickly abandoned formalities—a recitation of wheat statistics and shifts in the population of the internally displaced—in favor of whispered warnings. “They will not stop,” he said of the brutal Islamist leaders of the Taliban. “They are backed by the ISI”—Pakistani intelligence—“but they are not foreign. They are Afghans, too. They are born of this country.”

That summer, Afghanistan yet again faced the precipice. Rockets hit the capital, Kabul, daily. The Taliban raided villages across the countryside with impunity. The opium trade in the south soared. Public stoning had become commonplace. And all the while, the bodies arrived nightly. The hospital in Kandahar, staffed by Red Cross doctors from Europe, was crowded with the victims of the rocket attacks. And one day, the Taliban shuttered it—after discovering a group of Swedish nurses who refused to veil themselves in the OR.

The West had yet to learn much about the Taliban, or their version of sharia, traditional Islamic law in its most unforgiving form, but Kabul, and the Afghan state, hung in limbo. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed military strategist of the CIA’s proxy war with the Soviets, had decamped with his contingent of Tajik militiamen from Kabul and now controlled only the north of the country.

Dr. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, also known as Najib, the feckless Communist leader—an erstwhile secret-police boss turned Soviet puppet—remained in isolation inside Kabul’s UN compound, trapped there since the spring of 1992, when he had imagined he could flee the country.

As I sat and spoke with the astute Somali in Kandahar, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed founding father of the Taliban, then thirty-five years old, had assumed the title Amir ul-Momineen, “Commander of the Faithful,” and reigned a few blocks away in the center of town. Close by loomed another power, operating somewhere unknown and scarcely seen: a tall, lithesome Saudi with a wispy beard and an inherited fortune, the leader of a whirlwind of terror. At that time, few Afghans could pronounce his name—Osama—let alone recognize it.

You could feel the fear nearly everywhere in Kandahar that summer: in the crowded markets during the day, and in the empty dirt streets at night. The Somali had his escape route, and tapped his breast pocket as a reminder: Cash and a passport were always close. “They may lose a battle,” he said of the young warriors, then still all but invisible to the West. “But the Talibs are fanatics. They will never give up. You must warn your government; tell them not to support them. They will take this country and turn it into the world’s terrorist camp.”


NEARLY TEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since George W. Bush sent US troops into Afghanistan, just three weeks after 9/11. Somehow, along the way, the worst has happened. The good war—the conflict that presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 called “the war that had to be won”—has turned out to be the bad war.

It all began encouragingly enough. As the Twin Towers still smoldered, President Bush and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, oversaw a swift military victory half a world away. Within a few months, the Taliban were crushed—disappearing from the screens of CNN and into the southern sands of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

With a power vacuum in the unstable country, the Bush administration could soon try its hand at nation building—that noble calling it had previously disdained as foolhardy, utterly Clintonian, and outdated by the demands of the war on terror. In an instant, Washington descended on Kabul, as corps of NGO experts set about rebuilding schools, repaving roads, and recruiting women to help run a new government under the Westernizing, if not quite democratic, presidency of Hamid Karzai. By spring 2003, after eighteen months of war in Afghanistan, and after the American invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld all but declared victory. “We are at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction,” he said during a stopover in Kabul. Life in the Afghan capital, Rumsfeld declared, was more secure and stable than at any time in the previous quarter century.

What a difference the lack of any long-term strategy—military, political, or socio-economic—makes. Osama bin Laden is dead, but Mohammed Omar—who had sheltered bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the country as they plotted the 9/11 attacks—remains alive and in power. The Taliban may not rule Afghanistan, but they do control its future—and the legacy of America’s decade-long war there. To Afghanistan watchers, the turn has been long in coming. Even as Rumsfeld made his premature pronouncement, the Taliban were rising. As Bush and Co. focused their attentions, and trillions of dollars, on toppling Saddam Hussein, victory in Afghanistan slipped from reach. The Pentagon struck alliances with disparate Afghan militias, run by the warlords who carved up the country in the aftermath of the Soviet exit in 1989. But loyalty in Afghanistan can be fleeting. Even the friendliest militias refused to chase the Taliban or their Al Qaeda cohorts into the eastern borderlands near Pakistan. Then, in 2005, the warlords gained legitimacy, returning to power in the US-sponsored parliamentary elections. Many were the same thugs who had ruled with impunity before the Taliban seized control in the fall of 1996—weeks after I’d heard the warnings of the Somali aid worker. And no amount of cash, arms, or Ford 4x4 pickups, as the Pentagon planners now know, could win their allegiance.

To date, 1,661 US servicemen and -women have been killed in Afghanistan—nearly a third of that total in 2010 alone—and at least 12,450 have been wounded. And then, in early August, came the single largest loss of American servicemen in the war—the downed Chinook helicopter in Logar province that left thirty US soldiers dead, including twenty-two elite Navy seals. Countless more have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder or other unseen, decimating illnesses. The war once deemed a lopsided walkaway is now a half-throttle insurgency, fully outfitted with all the destructive bounty of Iraq—improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenade ambushes, suicide bombers. According to the best estimates, these methods of attack and deadly subterfuge will outlive the men who launched the insurgency—and much as in the case of the Iraq war, the blowback effect of the insurgency will stretch on into the next generation. By then, though, America won’t be there.

We will leave Afghanistan, once again. And when we go, we’ll leave one of the world’s poorest and most imperiled nations—30 million people with a per capita GDP of $900—to stanch its own wounds and, if President Obama gets his wish, to fight its own battles. In June, the president declared his intention to keep a promise to bring home US troops in Afghanistan on an accelerated timetable, beginning that same summer. We have paid a price and perhaps learned the lesson of the land: Afghans do not bow before foreign occupiers. Every country has learned that lesson in Afghanistan since the 1840s, with the British, Nazis, Soviets, and Pakistanis shelving their dreams of nation building as their armies withdrew. And for the US forces in the new century, the exodus has already begun.

So, too, with apt timing, has the book boom. This is also a familiar tradition: The various Western and Near Eastern forays into Afghanistan have long spurred men of other professions to pick up the pen. Brits, above all, have lost themselves to the country’s thrall, and emerged with lyrical chronicles of its transformative charms and accursed geography. The present war, too, has spawned a publishing—if not exactly a literary—cottage industry, with military memoirs and correspondents’ histories now abounding. Of the latest crop, two stand apart, while a couple others deserve the study of those hoping to discover the root causes of the present mess.

Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan, a 912-page opus researched and written over the course of eight years, is by far the best at charting the long and ruinous path to the present conflict. Tomsen, George W. Bush’s special envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, is a retired Foreign Service veteran of thirty-one years. The Wars of Afghanistan weaves together one of the world’s most complex histories—jetting backward from Obama to 53 BC, with the main narrative spine emerging from the tangled dance of tribalism and Islam that has convulsed the country since the ninth century. As he tracks this dynamic into the modern era, Tomsen supplies a sharp account of Afghanistan’s role in the great game of East-West imperial designs, harking back to the nineteenth-century Afghan Empire, up through Prime Minister Daoud’s turn to the United States in the 1950s (and quick rebuff by John Foster Dulles) before the country lurched once more toward Moscow. Tomsen also revisits King Zahir Shah’s “new democracy” era of the 1960s (an Arcadia of economic growth, a coalition of tribal khans and the liberal elite, Ph.D.’s in the cabinet, and miniskirts in Kabul) and the decade-long bloodbath of the Soviet occupation—and, for the first time, rivetingly reconstructs his own shuttle-diplomacy efforts (an account that stretches across 250 pages here) to unite the wildly disparate Afghan mujahideen in Washington’s proxy war with Moscow.

It’s quite a tour (the prefatory cast of characters alone takes up eighteen pages), yet Tomsen writes fluidly, with granular detail that never detracts from the grand sweep of his narrative. The Wars of Afghanistan is a fat book but a quick read. It deserves not only the attention of anyone interested in the Afghans’ long history before 9/11, but—just as important—the close scrutiny of those in Washington, Kabul, London, Tehran, or Islamabad who will help shape Afghanistan’s future.

There is reason to listen. Tomsen here proves himself a fine historian, but his prescience is a matter of record—now declassified. In 1991, in a secret cable on US strategy for Afghanistan, seven months before Najib bolted for the Kabul airport, Tomsen warned Washington “that Pakistan’s vision of an extremist outcome in Afghanistan would damage US interests.” “The United States had to prevent a victory by the Islamist extremists,” he wrote a decade before 9/11. “If they replaced Najib . . . Arab terrorist groups in the Middle East would shift their bases to Afghanistan.” Later, in a 2000 Foreign Affairs article, Tomsen wrote, “The chief danger to U.S. interests is the rising tide of Islamist militancy and international terrorism emanating from bases in Afghanistan.” Today, Tomsen does not look back and gloat. Instead, he soberly surveys the bleak landscape, evaluates Washington’s options, and argues for the broadest possible regional approach. So The Wars of Afghanistan, inescapably, takes in far more than the nation’s own troubled military and political history, weighing the impact of the Saudi, Iranian, and Pakistani influences on Afghanistan’s halting, centuries-long path toward nationhood.

Bing West’s The Wrong War is a vastly different, but still quite illuminating, account of the many miscues and errors that afflicted Pentagon war planning in Afghanistan. A seventy-year-old former marine who survived Vietnam and a stint as an assistant secretary in the Reagan Pentagon, West has enjoyed a revival during the Bush years, touring the wars on terror to publish a string of from-the-frontlines-with-the-lads books. To be sure, no one will group West’s books alongside the military works that rank as literature—the portraits are cartoonish, the writing is rough, and the chronologies are little more than hopscotches of battlefields. In West’s world, soldiers don’t get tired; they “suck wind.” Attempts at psychology yield contorted metaphors: “There was hard bark on the grunts in Viper.” Paragraphs yearning for standard English get washed out in mudslides of Marine jargon: “Terps” stands in for interpreters; “the wire” for a perimeter; “thermals” for night-vision binoculars; “arty” for artillery. Nor is West supplying anything like a scholarly assessment of the Afghan war; The Wrong War has fewer than seven pages of footnotes. And he makes scant effort at balance, offering almost no recognizably fair effort to present the war from the Afghan perspective. “Any illiterate teenager speaking an unwritten language and living in a stone hut could load an RPG,” he writes of the Marines’ imagined enemy. “As he pulled the trigger, the boy may have been thinking, ‘Allahu Akbar’—‘God is Great!’ or ‘This pays better than herding goats.” Elsewhere, on a single page, West alternately calls the enemy the “Korengalis,” the “Taliban,” and the “jihadists.”

But as testimony, The Wrong War is unexpectedly devastating. West offers an extended and unimpeachable affidavit on the wrongheadedness of the men who rushed America to war, and who have time and again jumped onto the media carousel to shill for yet another “new strategy” or “new plan”—all while averting their eyes from the truth on the ground. Neither Tomsen nor West is a trained historian or writer. But they present a rare two-front indictment of a war that the United States is still waging. Both are establishment men who hold irrepressibly antiestablishment views. One stands in the military world, the other in the diplomatic. Yet Tomsen is anything but reserved, and West is at his strongest while denouncing the Pentagon line. Read together, their two books not only offer uncanny mirrors of each other but also give us a pellucid reflection of the strongest criticisms of the war—from our inability to learn from Afghan history, to the generals’ misguided execution, to our present blind groping for a way out.

Taliban portraits, Kandahar, 2002.
Taliban portraits, Kandahar, 2002.


THE LITANY OF ERRORS cataloged in Tomsen’s and West’s accounts stands out in especially strong relief when we consider the sort of tactical benefits that were supposed to accrue to Americans in Afghanistan. In this war, America was supposed to have a rare advantage, one that went well beyond familiar calculations of superior forces or technological advantages: For the first time since the end of the cold war, we had the Russians on our side—or so we were once led to believe. In the early days of the post-9/11 air strikes on Taliban strongholds, Vladimir Putin opened Central Asian airspace and ex-Soviet bases to the Pentagon, prompting many talking heads in the United States to debate the utility of listening to Moscow. Among them was Tomsen, who had served in the former Soviet lands, most recently as our ambassador in Armenia. The Russians, it was mooted, could help us. After all, they had suffered their own military quagmire in Afghanistan, an intervention that ended only with the rise of a former state-farm boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, who called the Politburo’s foray into Afghanistan “a bleeding wound.” We might learn, it was suggested, from the hard lessons the Soviets absorbed over a decade of futile warfare in the same mountains and plains.

For the Soviets, it began at twilight on Christmas Day 1979, as the 108th Motorized Rifle Division forded the Amu Dar’ya river. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, invoking fear of “instability along the southern border,” had sent Soviet troops into Afghanistan, and by the time Moscow’s last soldier returned home in 1989, at least 13,000 Soviet servicemen had died there. Forty thousand were wounded. More than a million Afghans had been killed, and ten million land mines lay buried across the country. More than 2.3 million refugees went into exile, mostly in Iran and Pakistan, with a million more internally displaced. Tens of thousands of children were orphaned, and in Kabul alone, twenty-five thousand war widows struggled to survive. Diseases rose like Old Testament plagues, as cholera, polio, diphtheria spiraled beyond control.

Now we have been in Afghanistan as long as the Soviets were. At the height of the conflict, the Soviets had nearly 130,000 troops in Afghanistan—nearly the same figure as the current total of NATO, US, and British troops in the country. In early 1980, when the Soviet deputy foreign minister pointed out to his boss, Andrei Gromyko, that three previous invasions by the British had failed, Gromyko replied: “Are you comparing our internationalist forces to those of the British imperialists?” “No, sir, of course not,” answered his deputy. “But the mountains are the same.” In a 1986 memorandum, the Soviet army’s chief of staff wrote, “After seven years in Afghanistan, there is not one square kilometer left untouched by the boot of a Soviet soldier. But as soon as they leave the place, the enemy returns and restores it all the way it used to be. We have lost this war.”

Now, as well, the mountains are the same—and little else in the country’s internal makeup has changed. West quotes a British general, referring to the inevitable return of the Taliban once his armored columns have cleared an area, as an eternal chore akin to “mowing the lawn.” The charred carcasses of Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers still litter the country. The Soviets’ Bagram air base, for years disused, is now a sprawling US base, the largest in the country. All these points of continuity with the last invasion by an outside power underscore the obvious truth of the matter: We did not listen to the Russians. Early on there were one or two polite meet and greets at the Pentagon, but to read Tomsen’s chapters on the Soviet war is to understand that the lessons of the Russian experience in Afghanistan were all but lost on the war planners in Washington. And Tomsen’s version of events is corroborated in other recent accounts of the two invasions, such as the Russian historian Artemy M. Kalinovsky’s A Long Goodbye, a deeply researched and fluidly written chronicle of the same time and territory, and Tim Bird and Alex Marshall’s Afghanistan: How the West Lost Its Way, a sobering British perspective delivered by two academic war-studies specialists.

Tomsen rightly notes that the present war and the Soviet intervention are markedly distinct. Yet in their failures, the parallels are stark. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was the subject of a rare US-Russian conference in 2002 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, under the aegis of its Cold War International History Project. The star was Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s chief foreign policy aide, who had kept handwritten notes on key Politburo meetings relating to the decision to topple former Afghan president Hafizullah Amin and who continued to chronicle the grim course of the Soviet debacle for years after the 1989 withdrawal. Tomsen spoke at the conference, and makes excellent use of the accounts presented to produce exceptionally vivid historical reconstructions of the Soviet decision to invade.

And Tomsen’s chapters on the Soviet invasion find a curious cold-war complement in Kalinovsky’s account. In explicating the Soviet “humiliation,” the Russian historian wisely warns that “a truly international history of the war—one which incorporates the narratives of Washington, Moscow, Kabul, Tehran, Delhi, Riyadh, Beijing, the Afghan resistance, the Arab volunteers, the CIA . . . the ISI . . . the KGB . . . and the Afghan refugees, to name a few of the actors in this drama—is at this point very far away.” But he has set himself a more modest aim: “to understand how Soviet leaders came to accept the need to withdraw, how they went about it, and what obstacles they faced.” In this, he has succeeded. Like Tomsen, Kalinovsky points out the lessons of the Soviet quagmire—lessons unheeded, he argues, by the Americans. The Soviets, too, used overwhelming might to seize towns, villages, and roads, only to become sitting ducks. The Soviets, too, sought to separate an insurgency from the population, only to turn the population against an occupying force. Before long, Russian soldiers took to calling the mujahideen dkhi—“ghosts.” Today, American soldiers call the new generation of insurgents by the same fearful nickname.


BUT TURNING OUR BACKS on the Russians was only part of the problem—the present consensus of Washington’s policy makers appears to be to put the whole mess behind them and leave the country to fend for itself. As with the initial invading operation in the early Bush years, the Obama Afghanistan team launched on a promising note. “The Obama administration,” contends Tomsen, who served under Bush père, “has exhibited a better grasp of Afghanistan’s internal dynamics than the Bush administration did.” When Obama won the White House, we were told that wise men and women would assume the helm. Obama brought in Richard Holbrooke, Samantha Power, and the country’s most sagacious academic on Afghan affairs, Barnett Rubin, among others. The expertise yielded a new approach—“Af-Pak,” a consensus that only a consideration of Afghanistan in the context of Pakistan could address the threats posed by a dominant neighbor friendly to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In December 2009, in a highly touted speech at West Point, Obama revised the Bush strategy: The United States would add thirty thousand troops. But he added a back end to the deal—after eighteen months, US forces would begin to come home. It was a deadline, as General David Petraeus later testified, that no senior officer had recommended. But it was too late.

The entire approach, these authors argue uniformly, was wrong. West faults both Bush Jr. and Obama, together with the generals who served them. “Six American commanders between 2002 and 2009 had followed no single strategy,” he writes. “Some places are relatively forgiving of strategic incoherence,” add Bird and Marshall. “Afghanistan is not one of them.”

In the past two years alone, command in Afghanistan has passed from General David McKiernan (fired after a year on the job by Defense Secretary Gates, the first sacking of a wartime theater commander since Truman dumped MacArthur in 1951) to General Stanley McChrystal (Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen’s special assistant and erstwhile master of black ops in Iraq) to Petraeus—the West Point graduate, media darling, and sole American military leader in the country, as West notes, to emerge “with his reputation intact.”

Further weakening the shifting chain of command is the Pentagon’s new counterinsurgency strategy, which all these writers argue amounts to a fateful misreading of the Afghan terrain on every level—geographic, political, and historical. McChrystal’s plan, contend Bird and Marshall, relied on two assumptions: “that it was not necessary to defend every village, but merely the largest population centres; and that most of the Taliban resistance was also based on local grievances, so that securing the [Pakistan] border need not be a priority”—i.e., the United States could ignore Pakistan as a sanctuary.

Among this chorus of critics, West is most emphatic in zeroing in on the target of his disdain: Washington’s premium on a gentler, kinder soldier. “Clear, hold, and build” has become the guiding hymn of US troops in Afghanistan. “We didn’t have a war-fighting doctrine for defeating the Taliban,” West writes. “Instead, we had a counterinsurgency doctrine for nation building, much like the Peace Corps on a giant scale. . . . The high command, beginning with Adm. Mullen, had diminished the primacy of the military’s core competency—violence.” To West, the Mullen mantra—“We can’t kill our way to victory”—is “political drivel.” The operational objective “to secure and serve the population,” he writes, stems from the US Army’s 2006 manual on counterinsurgency—which, as Bird and Marshall note, “shaped operations in Iraq from 2007 onwards.” The manual, known among the military by its issue-number acronym, “FM 3-24,” states that “soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as soldiers.” But West ignores an underlying contradiction that Bird and Marshall—and even Kalinovsky—single out for emphasis: General Petraeus, the man Obama and so many others have entrusted to map our way out of Afghanistan, oversaw the drafting of the 2006 manual.

Does any “silver bullet” remain? Tomsen offers none, while West writes of his visit to Task Force Commando, comprising four hundred Afghans and forty Americans, with Special Forces in the lead, under Captain Matt Golsteyn—a 2002 graduate of West Point—as a model. The generals, Tomsen warns, no longer have any goalpost other than “good enough”—i.e., When will the situation on the ground, and the politics at home, be good enough for us to leave? West provides one proposal: The United States should transition to a hundred such adviser task forces, “reducing our total force from 100,000 to 50,000.” We should also return the Marines and the Army to what he sees as their essential utility. He quotes Golsteyn: “We have to kill someone.” “We have fought the wrong war with the wrong strategy,” West writes in summing up his argument. “Our troops are not a Peace Corps; they are fighters. Let them fight, and let the Taliban fear.”

Meanwhile, impervious to military timetables, the tragedies go on. We are now spending nearly $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. Last year, as foot patrols increased, doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a critical-care hospital for the wounded, saw a new trend: The number of patients needing amputations had tripled over the previous year. In March, the ever-ascendant General Petraeus, now set to become the CIA director, testified before Congress to outline his own version of a winning strategy in Afghanistan. On the same day, a suicide bomber killed thirty-six at a military recruitment post in the northern province of Kunduz. In the south of the country, the poppy fields again rank among the world’s most prodigious, furnishing a grimly ironic revenue stream for the zealous warlords affiliated with the puritanical leaders of the Taliban. And everywhere, the power struggle continues to roil. In July, Hamid Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali, de facto ruler of Kandahar province, long accused of dipping into the drug trade there and milking foreign security companies as cash cows, was shot dead—by a friend on his security detail.

Karzai himself has long since cut the marionette strings. Last year, Peter Galbraith, a former UN envoy to Kabul, called into question the Afghan leader’s “mental stability.” “He can be very emotional, act impulsively,” Galbraith blurted out on MSNBC. “In fact, some of the palace insiders say that he has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports”—an allusion, the diplomat later clarified on CNN, to hashish or marijuana. Whatever he is smoking, America’s chosen leader for Afghanistan has taken to heckling his patrons. The US-led troops, Karzai said in June, are “here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.” Washington at the same time has had to confirm an open secret: We are now trying to negotiate with the Taliban—those cavemen, now on Twitter, we once disdained as terrorists. “We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most of the wars end,” Defense Secretary Gates said in June. “The question is when and if they are ready to talk seriously.” But then came an unseemly revelation: The CIA had spent months and untold resources courting a Taliban impostor.

And finally, yes, we got bin Laden. But we can no longer pretend Pakistan is our ally in the war on terror. In June, Islamabad arrested five local CIA informants who kept vigil at the bin Laden lair in Abbottabad.

What, then, is the endgame? In his recent confirmation hearing to become the new US ambassador in Kabul, Ryan C. Crocker set a modest goal. “We’re not out to, clearly, create a shining city on a hill,” he said. Instead of constructing a paragon of democracy, Washington now aims to help the Afghans build a “good-enough government”—words that would ring with a certain sickening familiarity in the ears of readers of Tomsen and West. Crocker also warned of the risks in leaving Afghanistan. Washington had abandoned the Afghans before, he said, in 1989, after the Soviet pullout. The chief consequence—the rise of the Taliban—was “disastrous,” he stressed. “We cannot afford,” Crocker said, “to do so again.”

In Kandahar all those years ago, Fekare, the wise Somali who ran his own UN outpost, had left me with his own resounding warning—not about terror, but good intentions. “You drive around these villages,” he said of the dry fields and mud settlements that surround the birthplace of the Taliban, “and you see all sorts of old aid projects. Bridges, canals, power plants—they’re in ruins. They’ve become monuments to failures.”

Andrew Meier is the author of The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service (Norton, 2008).