One of the best sci-fi novels of my youth was Harry Harrison's Deathworld series. Usually out of print the first of the series is a cautionary tale about imperialism and colonialism and, I always thought, about the settlement of Israel. Harrison describes a world, Pyhrus, that was settled by hopeful immigrants who found nothing but plants and animals and dreamed of a utopian community. Unfortunately for them the plants and animals of the planet were more or less sentient and fight back against the new immigrants by evolving, rapidly, to become deadly specifically to the human invaders. Without realizing it, the humans end up in an evolutionary species war--they must adjust their society, economy, culture, and child-rearing practices to deal with a planetary environment which is entirely hostile to them--everything from the local molds and ferns to the birds and mammals continuously evolve to kill them and pretty soon the humans can't leave their fortress homes without themselves being programmed from birth to kill or be killed. The story of what happened, and why, is discovered not by the Pyhrrans themselves, who are too caught up in the war to grasp its nature, but by a visiting rogue who pieces together the history of the planet and realizes that the very anger, fear, and rage of the humans is creating the permanent state of war with the planet. Unable to ratchet back their anger and fear or come to a truce with the planet and its flora and fauna, the humans are (eventually) forced to abandon their home and become wandering mercenaries. In other words, even when they finally grasp that the planet is simply reacting violently to their own violence, the Pyhrrans are unable to back down the evolutionary war path to their original intentions and their original peaceful society.
Basically, the same thing is happening in Afghanistan. We, like other states, have treated the Afghan people as though they are not sentient and have no real understanding of, or stake in, what we are doing for them (or to them.) And we are constantly surprised by the fact that they don't seem to be properly grateful to us, or able to protect us in their villages, or even able to spend our donations and our money responsibly. Well, why should they? Or more importantly, how should they? Afghan society has its own structures and its own institutions through which money, power, and culture flow. And it is only through those institutions that a redirection of Afghan energy from warfare to development can happen. Warfare, and specifically war with invaders, happens because there's nothing much else good going on and the immiediate necessity of attacking the enemy, or stealing his stuff, is more urgent and attractive than continuing to hack out a miserable existence farming or goat herding.
I don't know why this isn't incredibly obvious. We are a foreign invader--I don't care how nice we are, or how well intentioned, or how much money we spend. If the Mexicans started dropping bombs that combined shrapnel and money onto the streets of Brooklyn tomorrow, or tried a more targeted approach and handed out money to a few random people on the street, or to the garbage collectors, or to the odd person who spoke Spanish, we wouldn't really expect that that money would be used successfully to develop a parallel school system, or health care system, or anything else...would we? Graft, confusion, inability, and a total lack of local investment in the process would militate against actually achieving those goals, wouldn't they? Why is Afghanistan though of any differently?
If I had a goal in Afghanistan it would be to curtail the power of the warlords, educate the women and children, bring peeance and freeance to the villages, and to see the US not spend billions and billions of dollars blowing shit up. Also, I'd like to see the Taliban stop flowing over the border into Pakistan. Our problem in Afghanistan, in re the Taliban, is a problem that is not amenable to a military solution because the Taliban, ultimately, are a problem of Afghan cultural and political struggle over a rubble strewn economic backwater. The Taliban will continue to exist as long as young men can get more respect and money fighting than working their own fields. And the Taliban, as an anti woman and anti education force, will continue to exist as long as the education and empowerment of women and children are seen as destructive of local power relations and religious purity. Remove the threat of foreign interference and imperialism and you remove half the temptation to destroy schools and lives.
To get from this Afghanistan to a better Afghanistan we need peace, but our military can't get us peace. Only the Afghans themselves can get to peace. And they Afghan people will choose peace, and development, and education and protect those things when they control them just as they will only protect a new school when they have built it and own it.
So my gentle suggestion for the President, if anyone had been able to listen, would have been to withdraw from Afghanistan entirely and to inform the Afghan government and its local ministries that all further development monies would come only in the form of civilian contractors, doctors, teachers, books, etc... when the local Afghan authorities themselves requested it and guaranteed the safety of the mission. Its not that that would have been easy--its just that that is the way that anything gets done in a place like Afghanistan. Basically, villages, elders, political leaders decide what gets done and they make it happen/protect the process or they don't. If they want their daughters to be educated, they'll educate them. If they don't, they won't permit someone else to do it. And trying to force the process is a recipe for disaster.
That isn't to say that the way forward is closed. But the way forward has to be through local pathways. If opium is the main crop don't destroy it--buy it. If another crop could bring in more money, help people choose it and plant it and create a market for it. If young men don't have enough money and land to get married and settle down create off farm employment for them. Needless to say all this could be better done through non military means. Not because if we withdraw Afghanistan will be miraculously de-militarized, but because we don't know who to kill and the Afghans do. Just as we don't know what the Afghans want, the Afghans do.