In the unforgiving Afghan landscape, we have learned that 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, it has been recently confirmed, 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."
In the theory of imperialism, we would venture into the Hindu Kush and reform its ways.
It would, instead, be the other way around: The United States took to the ways of "the East," and baksheesh 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Deep down, we knew that these forces are certain to melt away when the foreign protection is withdrawn.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.