Robert McNamara- Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and, for a time, Johnson- is a man who I admire not for his Cold War era policy decisions, but for his profound intellect and insightful observations. I highly recommend that anybody interested in modern conflicts see the enlightening documentary about McNamara entitled The Fog of War.
One of McNamara's rules of war is to "empathize with your enemy". To prove his argument, McNamara puts forth two historical case studies: the Vietnam war and the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara posits that we (the US government) were able to successfully empathize with Khruschev and the Soviets. Khruschev knew that he had put everybody in a hell of a mess by deploying missiles in Cuba, but at the same time, if we were to deescalate the conflict, we had to give Khruschev an out so that he could politically save face. In other words, we had to put ourselves in Khruschev's shoes (all the more impressive, as we all know how abusive Khruschev can be to his footwear). By empathizing with Khruschev, we understood that in order to step back from the brink of nuclear war, we had to remain silent (and hold back from rolling our eyes) when Khruschev loudly proclaimed that he had single handedly saved Cuba from destruction at the hands of the US because he pulled the missiles out. Obviously, this is a gross distortion of fact, but hell, we didn't shoot each other. Everybody wins, sort of.
We didn't win in Vietnam, however, as we never empathized with the Vietnamese (North or South or whatever [distinctions between North, South, Communist, Viet Cong, etc. were very difficult to make and we, as a learned public, were and are too quick to start placing labels on the Vietnamese circa 1950s-70s. There was a lot of grey area, to say the least.]). We saw the Vietnam war as a war to halt the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, and as a war to maintain the independence of the South from the the North. The Vietnamese didn't see it that way at all! To them, it was a civil war, and the US simply replaced the French as an imperialist power trying to impose itself on the Vietnamese. The two sides were looking at the conflict in completely different terms, and for that reason the US could never have won the war in Vietnam. McNamara paraphrases a VC commander who said that the North Vietnamese were willing to take as many causalities as necessary to fulfill their goal, and unless the US was willing to do the same, we could never have won that war.
With these lessons in mind, let's try to apply them to the war in Afghanistan. Let's ask, what are we fighting for? What are we trying to accomplish?
Answer: To destroy the Al Qaeda terrorist network by killing or capturing its members and leaders, and to also crush the Al Qaeda-allied Taliban movement which supplies and harbors Al Qaeda. A secondary goal, and a minor one as far as the US government is concerned (or at least that's how it is acting), is to rebuild the shattered Afghan nation and infrastructure and develop this narcostate into a functioning and self sustaining sort-of-democracy.
Now, let's try to empathize with Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the Afghan people. How do they see the conflict? Al Qaeda and the Taliban see us as an imperialist, pro-Israel, outsider who is trying to impose itself on the Middle East and destroy Islam. Destroying Islam is ridiculous and harmful propaganda that isn't even worth discussing as it is so preposterous and wrong. But the imperialist aggression argument has some merit. In Iraq, I agree! No good came from the Iraq war; it was an imperialist aggression. In Afghanistan, however, I disagree. We can accomplish real good there. And by kicking out the Taliban (knock on wood), we really can turn around a once-repressed nation.
What about Al Qaeda goals? I think it's safe to say that most of the goals of Al Qaeda are not feasible or productive to the US, including: destruction of the state of Israel and removal of all combat personal from Central Asia and the Middle East, and especially Saudi Arabia.
So, destruction of Israel? Insane. Not gonna happen. More critical policies towards Israel? Definitely possible (in my opinion, helpful) and in fact, things seem to be heading in that direction. Take Obama's criticism of settlement expansion in the West Bank (though, bark and bite are two very different things. Plus, I think every recent President has asked for a "moratorium" on settlement expansion, to no avail).
Removal of combat troops? That seems like not such a bad idea, as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned. Besides being one of the most repressive nations on Earth, it is also the most holy for Muslims. We probably shouldn't have troops there. Moving US combat troops elsewhere, say, Kuwait or... Iraq(?) seems like a better idea. Hmm. I'll think about that one. However, removing troops from Afghanistan or Iraq at this time is suicidal and counter-productive. Not gonna happen.
What about the Afghan people? How do we empathize with them? How do they see the conflict? I don't know the answers, but it's probably very complicated. Are we in Afghanistan for natural resources? Not really. So why are we there? Altruism? I'm not sure that anybody would believe that. So when we kill civilians (accidentally) in airstrikes, what are the surviving Afghans supposed to think? How do we want our presense to be felt? We're there to get Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Do the Afghans see a benefit from that? Are they safer? What do they want? How can we help them now that we are there?
These are the questions we should be asking-- not to policy analysts or diplomatic intellectuals-- but to the Afghan people.