Before serving in Congress, I was an infantry platoon commander in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. In the summer of 2012, we patrolled three Taliban-contested villages on the Helmand River. On each patrol I would visit a tribal elder. They would serve me hot, sweet goat-milk tea. I would sip it in the 100-degree heat and smile politely. They would listen to me talk about the American mission and smile politely. Neither side could stomach it.
These Pashtun elders, veterans of the Soviet invasion and the civil war, were in a familiar bind. Taliban to their south, Americans to their north. Taliban conscripting their sons to plant IEDs; Americans demanding to know who planted them. My platoon and I were there for a summer, but the villagers would live with their decisions. One elder conveyed their wariness in an often-used expression: “You have the watches, but they have the time.” The Taliban could not outfight Americans, but it could outlast us, because we had no political endgame.