Kabul, Afghanistan -- Compromise, conflict, or collapse: ask an Afghan what to expect in 2014 and you're likely to get a scenario that falls under one of those three headings. 2014, of course, is the year of the double whammy in Afghanistan: the next presidential election coupled with the departure of most American and other foreign forces. Many Afghans fear a turn for the worse, while others are no less afraid that everything will stay the same. Some even think things will get better when the occupying forces leave. Most predict a more conservative climate, but everyone is quick to say that it's anybody's guess.
Only one thing is certain in 2014: it will be a year of American military defeat. For more than a decade, U.S. forces have fought many types of wars in Afghanistan, from a low-footprint invasion, to multiple surges, to a flirtation with Vietnam-style counterinsurgency, to a ramped-up, gloves-off air war. And yet, despite all the experiments in styles of war-making, the American military and its coalition partners have ended up in the same place: stalemate, which in a battle with guerrillas means defeat. For years, a modest-sized, generally unpopular, ragtag set of insurgents has fought the planet's most heavily armed, technologically advanced military to a standstill, leaving the country shaken and its citizens anxiously imagining the outcome of unpalatable scenarios.
The first, compromise, suggests the possibility of reaching some sort of almost inconceivable power-sharing agreement with multiple insurgent militias. While Washington presses for negotiations with its designated enemy, "the Taliban," representatives of President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council, which includes 12 members of the former Taliban government and many sympathizers, are making the rounds to talk disarmament and reconciliation with all the armed insurgent groups that the Afghan intelligence service has identified across the country. There are 1,500 of them.
One member of the Council told me, "It will take a long time before we get to Mullah Omar [the Taliban's titular leader]. Some of these militias can't even remember what they've been fighting about."
The second scenario, open conflict, would mean another dreaded round of civil war like the one in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat -- the one that destroyed the Afghan capital, Kabul, devastated parts of the country, and gave rise to the Taliban.
The third scenario, collapse, sounds so apocalyptic that it's seldom brought up by Afghans, but it's implied in the exodus already underway of those citizens who can afford to leave the country. The departures aren't dramatic. There are no helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy with desperate Afghans clamoring to get on board; just a record number of asylum applications in 2011, a year in which, according to official figures, almost 36,000 Afghans were openly looking for a safe place to land, preferably in Europe. That figure is likely to be at least matched, if not exceeded, when the U.N. releases the complete data for 2012.
In January, I went to Kabul to learn what old friends and current officials are thinking about the critical months ahead. At the same time, Afghan President Karzai flew to Washington to confer with President Obama. Their talks seem to have differed radically from the conversations I had with ordinary Afghans. In Kabul, where strange rumors fly, an official reassured me that the future looked bright for the country because Karzai was expected to return from Washington with the promise of American radar systems, presumably for the Afghan Air Force, which is not yet "operational." (He actually returned with the promise of helicopters, cargo planes, fighter jets, and drones.) Who knew that the fate of the nation and its suffering citizens hinged on that? In my conversations with ordinary Afghans, one thing that never came up was radar.
Another term that never seems to enter ordinary Afghan conversation, much as it obsesses Americans, is "al-Qaeda." President Obama, for instance, announced at a joint press conference with President Karzai: "Our core objective -- the reason we went to war in the first place -- is now within reach: ensuring that al-Qaeda can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America." An Afghan journalist asked me, "Why does he worry so much about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Doesn't he know they are everywhere else?"
At the same Washington press conference, Obama said, "The nation we need to rebuild is our own." Afghans long ago gave up waiting for the U.S. to make good on its promises to rebuild theirs. What's now striking, however, is the vast gulf between the pronouncements of American officialdom and the hopes of ordinary Afghans. It's a gap so wide you would hardly think -- as Afghans once did -- that we are fighting for them.
To take just one example: the official American view of events in Afghanistan is wonderfully black and white. The president, for instance, speaks of the way U.S. forces heroically "pushed the Taliban out of their strongholds." Like other top U.S. officials over the years, he forgets whom we pushed into the Afghan government, our "stronghold" in the years after the 2001 invasion: ex-Taliban and Taliban-like fundamentalists, the most brutal civil warriors, and serial human rights violators.
Afghans, however, haven't forgotten just whom the U.S. put in place to govern them -- exactly the men they feared and hated most in exactly the place where few Afghans wanted them to be. Early on, between 2002 and 2004, 90% of Afghans surveyed nationwide told the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that such men should not be allowed to hold public office; 76% wanted them tried as war criminals.
In my recent conversations, many Afghans still cited the first loya jirga, an assembly convened in 2003 to ratify the newly drafted constitution, or the first presidential election in 2004, or the parliamentary election of 2005, all held under international auspices, as the moments when the aspirations of Afghans and the "international community" parted company. In that first parliament, as in the earlier gatherings, most of the men were affiliated with armed militias; every other member was a former jihadi, and nearly half were affiliated with fundamentalist Islamist parties, including the Taliban.