Events, when seen through the prism of history, often take on an aura of inevitability. But they are usually far from inevitable. So it was with the initial war in Afghanistan that began after 9/11 — the war we fleetingly won.
I was the senior C.I.A. officer in the region from 1999 to 2002 and I know that things could have turned out very differently. Unfortunately, few American leaders have thought to ask what would have happened if the two Pashtun tribal leaders who were willing and able in 2001 to lead a successful American-backed rebellion against the Taliban had failed. They easily could have, and they nearly did.
Both Hamid Karzai, the future president of his country, and Gul Agha Shirzai narrowly escaped death at Taliban hands on multiple occasions. Even after the fall of Kabul, the slightest twist of fate could have left a sullen and determined Taliban in control of over half the country, and the Americans deprived of any effective local allies to root them out.
At the outset of the war in 2001, I argued that it was critical for Afghans to lead the anti-Taliban campaign. My advice was followed at the time because we were initially successful. Even if Mr. Karzai and Mr. Shirzai had failed, though, my advice would have been the same — though I doubt anyone in Washington would have listened to me. I would have counseled strategic patience: Do not try to do in place of Afghans what only Afghans can sustain over the long term. In the fevered post-9/11 political environment, patience would have been a nonstarter.
Looking back at 2001 now matters because the policy conundrum we face in Iraq and Syria is nearly identical to what we almost confronted in Afghanistan. If the initial war in Afghanistan had been fought differently, the results could have been disastrous, with southern Pashtuns seeing Americans as invaders rather than as supporters of their Afghan liberators. To any who doubt this, just look where we are now.
After 2005, as the Taliban began to return, impatience with America’s imperfect Afghan allies led Washington to abandon the “Afghans-first” strategy in favor of an American-led effort, culminating in the “surge” of 2010. As a result of that blunder, we have reprised the bitter experience of the British and the Soviets before us. And like those defeated empires, we are withdrawing.
Sadly, America has learned very little from the experience in Afghanistan. Just listen now to the impatient voices emanating from the right concerning the Islamic State. Our allies in Iraq, they say, are hopelessly ineffective, and our allies in Syria practically nonexistent. ISIS poses a clear threat to American security, they insist: If others will not, or cannot defeat it, we should not be afraid to step forward ourselves to crush it.
These sentiments play to the instincts of many Americans, and they must be resisted at all cost. If the United States were to take the lead in the ground war in Iraq and perhaps eventually in Syria by introducing conventional combat forces, we would feed into a radical Islamist narrative that pits the invading armies of the crusader against the committed defenders of Islam. In the process we would only strengthen the appeal and the morale of our enemies, while weakening and demoralizing our friends.
But that is not to counsel disengagement or timidity. Many of those on the left who claim to have learned the lesson of Afghanistan have learned the wrong one; they advocate isolationism. The Obama administration, with an eye on domestic politics, attempts to have it both ways: employing strident rhetoric about “degrading and destroying” ISIS, while strenuously avoiding American casualties. Having learned hard lessons in trying to do too much in Afghanistan, the administration is compounding its errors by doing too little there now, ceding much of the country to the Taliban and abandoning our would-be allies. The same risk-aversion infects our efforts in Iraq, where ground personnel are kept away from the fighting, though limited numbers of specialized American forces are badly needed to provide guidance and to direct air support for local forces on the front lines.
The war against radical Islamic militancy is not our fight. It is a struggle among Muslims for the soul and the future of the Muslim world. In the end, only Muslims can determine the outcome. Make no mistake: We in the United States and the West have an important national security stake in that outcome. But we should not try to win on our own what only local forces can sustain, particularly when our effort to help only makes their success less likely. The United States has a compelling national interest in providing limited but critical support to Muslim allies who are pursuing their own interests, but must avoid playing into the hands of those who would paint those allies as quislings who serve American interests.
In the course of exercising such strategic patience we should remember that the threat posed to us by radical Islam, while real, is not an existential one. The extremists may pose a fundamental danger to the moderate majority in much of the Muslim world; but very few American civilians have fallen victim to Islamic terror since 9/11, and Shariah is unlikely to be imposed in Texas.
The greatest difficulty in pursuing a moderate course against radical Islamic extremism is that it is a domestic political loser. Popular American notions of war are still tied to a World War II-era model. When forced to resort to arms, they seem to think, the United States should marshal overwhelming force, win decisive victory and get out quickly. Americans don’t like playing for a tie, and they don’t like open-ended engagements. For many Americans, failure in war should not be an option; America, they believe, can unilaterally determine its own fate. These notions are antithetical to the principles governing the global struggle in which we are now engaged.
Ultimate victory in the fight against violent extremism inspired by Islam will require wisdom and patience of an unaccustomed sort. The question is whether, as a government and as a people, Americans are capable of it.
Robert Grenier was C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad from 1999 to 2002 and is the author of 88 Days to Kandahar: A C.I.A. Diary.