In the unforgiving Afghan landscape, we have learned you can't buy a warlord. You can only rent one. We owe this education to our man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai.
For more than a decade, U.S. dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and plastic shopping bags have been delivered every month or so to Karzai's office. "We called it 'ghost money,'" Khalil Roman, who served as the Afghan president's deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, told the New York Times. "It came in secret, and it left in secret."
We thought we would venture into the Hindu Kush and reform its ways. It would be the other way around: The United States took to the ways of "the East," and baksheesh - bribery - is the order of the day. We do business by the rules of the warlords.
Almost three years ago, Karzai proudly let us know that we weren't his sole benefactor. "They do give us bags of money - yes, yes, it is done, we are grateful to the Iranians for this." Give the man his due; he has never whispered sweet things in our ears about "transparency," and he hasn't bothered retaining a Washington lobbying firm that would tutor him on what he should say to - and about - his American patrons.
America had struck into his country, and could find no way out. Two presidents - George W. Bush and Barack Obama - paid court to him even as they knew that the thing was a sham, even as the cables of their envoys told of a voracious group of bandit chieftains who were keen to keep the foreign powers in place while they proclaimed their attachment to the sovereignty of their own country.
There was no Afghanistan to speak of, yet we indulged the fantasy of a country learning to make its way in the world. We held out the promise of Afghan security forces "in the lead" before too long.
Deep down, we knew that these forces are certain to melt away when the foreign protection is withdrawn. We looked away as Karzai, as recently as a few weeks ago, accused his American protectors of colluding with the Taliban against his country.
A rogue ally was on the loose: The man needed American help as he railed against the Americans. He was without shame, that ally. Corruption was a way of life in his country, but truth be told, the American largesse, and the eagerness to accommodate the warlords, fed this culture of corruption. We were snookered at the bazaar. We had driven up the strategic rent of those Afghan mountains.
Bush and Obama had both declared the centrality of Afghanistan to the war on terrorism. Obama had upped the ante and memorably described the Afghanistan War as the good war of necessity. We had to pay for the privilege of having access to that real estate.
A man who saw through the sordid reality of Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, described the role of the U.S. special envoy there as pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. He was sidelined and mocked in Obama's councils. Holbrooke, who died in 2010 and who had his first tutorial about doomed causes back in the Vietnam War, had sinned by saying some inconvenient truths about Afghanistan.
The French ambassador to Afghanistan, Bernard Bajolet, recently gave a blunt assessment of the state of things in Afghanistan. He was leaving for an assignment at home, and it was obvious that he had pined to describe what he had seen. The venture in Afghanistan wasn't destined for success.
"I still cannot understand how we, the international community, and the Afghan government have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014 - elections, new president, economic transition, military transition and all this - whereas the negotiations for the peace process have not really started," Bajolet said.
The Afghan leaders should "take more visible and obvious ownership" of their army, he said. "We should be lucid: A country that depends almost entirely on the international community for the salaries of its soldiers and policemen, for most of its investments and partly on it for its current civil expenditure, cannot really be independent."
Some 90 percent of the Afghan budget is provided by American taxpayers: No wonder Karzai rails against us with such abandon.
This war - need we repeat the customary mantra, America's longest war - must be deemed unique in the annals of warfare. No great passion attends it. It has very few, if any, defenders, and no great wrath is aimed at it. The set date, the year 2014, for all the transitions that will take place there, for a "responsible" close to this war, was a convenient two years removed from the last U.S. presidential election. The war wasn't debated, the incumbent didn't proclaim ownership of that war, and his Republican rivals offered no challenge to the strategy of oblivion and drift.
There ought to be a law in the affairs of nations: Wars can't be waged against the background of popular indifference. Wars and their justice, and the way they are fought, must be debated and argued about. We mark time in the Hindu Kush - there are no gains on that horizon.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "The Syrian Rebellion." He wrote this for Bloomberg News.