WASHINGTON -- My, it is surely nice, after the cordial, cooperative visit between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week, to finally have some clarity sprinkled over our confusing wars.
Unquestionably, the American president's words were the most reassuring as he spoke Friday at the White House: "The reason we went to war in the first place is now within reach: ensuring that al-Qaida can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against our country.
"Starting this spring," he said, "our troops will have a different mission -- training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. This sets the stage for the further reduction of coalition forces."
How wonderful, one thought, reading this. Yes, much of the last 12 years has been wasted, young lives have been lost that should be blooming, and history should be recording an America that works for peace and respects other nations' borders, customs and sovereignty. But still, there has been a purpose to the madness.
Then, as I read deeper into his comments, I found my momentary gratitude dying away. Before he closed the press conference that day, Obama also said with a touch of melancholy: "Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not. This is a human enterprise and you fall short of the ideal."
How ungrateful of the president, I found myself thinking. Just as he is finally giving us some reason to think that the last 12 years and all the terrible losses have not been without fruit, he hits us in the face with another tale of haplessness. Was it, or wasn't it, Mr. President? Is it, or isn't it? Should we ever again, Mr. President, or should it be a clear "never again"?
One had to admit, first, that the two leaders had a remarkably cooperative meeting here. Karzai likes to carp at us Americans, but this time he was the very soul of cordiality. Against all the bets, he welcomed American troops leaving next spring (instead of 2014), assured Washington that it would have a status of forces agreement for its few troops remaining, and welcomed detention centers being turned over to Afghan forces (a constant disagreement).
As to the unusual speed with which things were happening, senior White House officials had said earlier that the president might reject all three troop options presented by the Pentagon -- leaving 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- and leave NO troops after 2014. They were calling it the "zero option" and, while it did make the papers, the fact that such a radical suggestion could make so few waves in the American public showed again how little Americans care about this war.
Cynics and the not-so-cynical pointed out to others that, after the events of last week, President Obama could still point out to the history books that he had indeed ended both the wars in Iraq (in his words, "the bad war") and in Afghanistan (once thought of by him as "the good war") in his first term, which of course does not end till his inauguration.
As for President Karzai, whom one expected might break out in a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," he praised the meeting in a speech at Georgetown and said that the two countries' relationship has entered a new era after the "bilateral security agreement" reached with Obama that day. Great!
Yet, one still had to flash back to the first words of Obama. Is the "reason we went to war in the first place" really now within reach? Have we truly "ensured that al-Qaida can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against our country"?
After 9/11, the United States was determined to find the perpetrators of the crime. They came from al-Qaida terrorist networks, largely Saudis, Pakistanis and other Arabs based in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Our troops had them, and Osama bin Laden, trapped in the Afghan mountains on the Pakistan border within weeks. But the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Don Rumsfeld testosterone caucus diverted troops to fight in Iraq for no reason other than their egos, and all was lost.
Had the Bush administration kept boots OFF the ground, and fought al-Qaida individuals with Special Forces, Interpol and other nations' forces, the major part of the struggle would surely have been over long ago. In addition, our "boots" only provided more American troops for al-Qaida to rebel against as national invaders.
So now, there are al-Qaida forces fighting in Mali, Yemen, areas around Somalia, Indonesia and God only knows where else.
So no, sorry, Mr. President, but al-Qaida may not use Afghanistan again, but it is now moving all over the world. What's more, poor Afghanistan will be at the mercy of a revived Taliban when we leave, unless a miracle happens and the U.S.-trained Afghan army can rise to the occasion.
Meanwhile, what America needs to do most of all at the end of this era is to consider the weight and burden of these "small wars." From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, they are choking the life out of us.