Terrorists dug the first eight years ago in Lower Manhattan. The hole is still there, visible live on Web cams keeping track of the crater’s make-work traffic. It was seven years from the time the design for the Twin Towers was unveiled in 1964 to the day the second building was topped out on a rainy July morning in 1971. It’s taken the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey almost seven years vaguely to agree on a replacement complex. It may take it twice as long before a planned 1,776-foot-tall tower rules the skyline. French projects with their labor strikes and 35-hour work week move faster than this.
The second hole is more grim. It’s the one in Afghanistan, originally dug in response to the one in Lower Manhattan. It wasn’t supposed to be a graveyard. But that’s all it’s been so far for 1,374 coalition members and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, whose lives should be no less disposable than your favorite American hero. By next March, that war will have lasted longer than American involvements in World War I, World War II and Korea combined. The hole in Lower Manhattan was a reminder of one day’s atrocity. It’s becoming a memorial to futility – how a nation’s anger can work against its better judgment.
In October 2001, George Will, the conservative columnist, applauded “the suitability of the swift response” when President Bush prepared to launch the war on Afghanistan. Will used words suitable for a Quentin Tarantino script: “The Bush administration is telling the country that there is some dying to be done.” The war was conducted accordingly. Dying was done. Little else. On Sept. 1, Will became the first notable conservative voice other than Pat Buchanan to call for a withdrawal. The same day, a CNN poll had 57 percent of Americans opposing the war in Afghanistan, an all-time high.
“Time to Get Out of Afghanistan” was Will’s headline. The headline implies defensively that there once was a time to go in. But there never was. The Afghan attack, goes the schoolbook narrative, was the necessary war, the “good” war, the one Bush should have stuck to instead of chasing ghosts in Iraq. For a few years the diversion in Iraq was so catastrophic that it made Afghanistan look like the more honorable contrast, compelling even Barack Obama to promise to end the war in Iraq but step-up the one in Afghanistan, as if one would redeem the other. It’s becoming clearer by the kill that one futility merely obscured another. Bush made a grave error going into Iraq. His successor is making just as grave an error escalating the war in Afghanistan instead of ending it, a war his generals are telling him they’re losing eight years on.
The war’s original objective was to destroy al-Qaida. An invasion was never essential. America could, as Will put it two weeks ago, do “only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.” Will could have used the same words eight years ago. For all the firepower Bush unleashed on Afghanistan, al-Qaida was allowed to slip out in late 2001. It hasn’t been in Afghanistan since. It’s safely ensconced in the mountains of Pakistan – an American ally. Western forces are allegedly battling the Taliban. Not so. They’re taking sides in a civil war in which the Taliban dominates, and turning an insurgency into a general insurrection. The Taliban is no longer the most-loathed common enemy. Western forces, whose bombs are killing almost as many civilians as the Taliban and other Afghan factions, are.
To what end? Not even Obama can spell it out. So it’s an escalation by default. The fear of losing Afghanistan by abandoning it ensures losing more than Afghanistan by staying there. Obama might find his presidency, so full of promise and possibilities, held hostage by Afghanistan the way Iraq defeated Bush and Vietnam defeated Lyndon Johnson. Four or eight years from now one certainty about Afghanistan is that Afghans such as the Taliban will still be there, gladly digging America’s grave. But America’s will to keep filling the grave is already spent. The rest is just more digging.