Long before Afghanistan became the longest shooting war in American history, the question loomed: Could it have turned out differently?
If only we had been smart enough, the arguments went, the “good war” might not have gone bad. If only we had gone into Tora Bora with overwhelming force in the winter of 2001, and captured Osama bin Laden. If only we had put a substantial force into the country in 2002, rather than assuming that the Taliban had been “eviscerated,” the term used, and now regretted, by American military briefers. If only we had carried through on President George W Bush’s promise of a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan. If only we had not been distracted by Iraq, or averted our eyes from the Taliban’s resurgence, or confronted the realities of Pakistan’s fighting both sides of the war ...
The WikiLeaks revelations of last week gave new life to this sea of second thoughts. The thousands of military reports revealed little that was fundamentally new; many should have been stamped “open secret.” But in their staccato rawness, they offered a ground-level view of how faulty assumptions gave rise to misjudgments, and how misjudgments cascaded into everyday deadly encounters.
They also laid bare a truth: As recently as two years ago there was still debate in Washington over whether George Bush had fumbled the strategy in Afghanistan and vastly underestimated the resources needed there. Today there is virtually no debate: Liberals and conservatives, generals and even many Bush administration policymakers agree that American approach was seriously flawed for the first six or seven years.
“I don’t know anyone in the top military leadership who doesn’t think we got it wrong between 2002 and 2006,” one senior American commander said recently, declining to speak for attribution in this post-McChrystal era, where blunt, public assessment can lead to a brief and final visit to the Oval Office. “The question is whether the alternatives you hear thrown around would have produced a different result.”
And on that, he noted, there is plenty of argument. Just because a strategy is flawed does not mean that another approach would have worked. The British spent a century arguing over whether a lighter hand or devastating military might could have put down the American Revolution. In his memoir “My Early Life,” Winston Churchill raises the same question, obliquely, about Afghanistan in 1897. About a failed effort to subdue the Mamund Valley, on what is now the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, he wrote, “We destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” But the casualties mounted. “Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell.”
It took several decades for the British, then the Soviets, in a different era, to decide that it really wasn’t. President Obama argues Afghanistan is still a “war of necessity.” But what went wrong for the United States? Here are a few turning points, along with some speculation about what might, or might not, have happened had Washington chosen a different path.
I. DECIDING TO USE MINIMAL FORCE
Removing the Taliban from power in 2001 was deceptively easy, leading Washington to believe that the Afghans could largely take it from there. Fewer than a thousand American troops and C.I.A. officers, some on horseback, joined with the indigenous Northern Alliance to chase the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his forces out of Kabul. That would have been the moment, it is argued, to put 20,000 to 30,000 American troops — and perhaps a similar number of NATO forces — into the country as a stabilization force.
But Mr. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, wouldn’t hear of it. “The consensus was that little could be accomplished in Afghanistan given its history, culture and composition, and there would be little payoff beyond Afghanistan even if things there went better than expected,” Richard Haass, a senior official at the State Department in the Bush administration who advocated the insertion of a far larger force, wrote recently. “They had no appetite for on-the-ground nation building.”
The result was a semblance of security in Kabul, and lawlessness in much of the rest of the country. When Mr. Bush greeted the country’s new leader, Hamid Karzai, at the White House, he vowed, “We’re going to help Afghanistan develop her own military.” But the administration decided not to build a security apparatus bigger than what the Afghans could eventually pay for. The result was disastrous: Soldiers were paid less than the Taliban. Then a “Afghan Marshall Plan,” promised by Mr. Bush a few months later, never really kicked into gear; the White House said Afghanistan did not have the capacity to spend the money well.
To most experts, these were the original sins in Afghanistan. But who knows if a force of 30,000, or even 60,000, could have brought stability to a vast country, where tribes, not governments, are the ruling powers? The troop buildup might have simply delayed the inevitable. The Taliban — a native movement — would almost certainly have waited it out, figuring that Washington could not sustain so large a force for very long. Also, even when American forces in 2007 finally reached the level Mr. Haass had advocated, the Afghan military and police still turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to train.
The slow pace of rebuilding and training. It’s what American military commanders in Afghanistan call the country’s “Law of Six.” Everything takes six years longer than it should.
II. NO RESPONSE TO A RESURGENT ENEMY
In the Vietnam War, the misleading metric was “body counts”: Each day, the military would announce how many of the enemy had been killed, as if that was a measure of progress. In Afghanistan, the misleading metric was attacks against American forces. From 2002 to 2005, the numbers were small. In intelligence briefings to American officials and visiting NATO diplomats, this was cited as evidence that the Taliban had been vanquished.
“They were anything but dead; they were biding their time,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, who conducted President Obama’s review of Afghan policy in 2009. By 2006, attacks were spiking. “This was the moment to clip the Taliban before they got out of control,” Mr. Riedel said.
The commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, ultimately won the argument for a major surge in Iraq; a much smaller force was sent to Afghanistan, mostly to show that the country had not been forgotten. There were not enough troops for simultaneous surges.
Would a bigger force have beaten back the Taliban? Maybe. But it is just as likely that the Taliban would have disappeared over the porous border into Pakistan, where they knew that American forces could not follow them. In fact, it was during this time that the Pakistanis truly opened the sanctuary, sometimes providing the Taliban with arms and support. Mr. Bush never talked about that in public (though he fumed in private), figuring that publicly splitting with a nuclear-armed Pakistan was inviting a backlash.
III. MISSION EXPANSION AND COMPRESSION
As the Afghanistan problem grew more intractable during the Bush presidency, Washington’s stated goals grew grander. And grander.
For all of his reluctance about nation building, Mr. Bush recognized that he could not be perceived to be abandoning Afghanistan, as his father was accused of doing after the Soviet pullout. So there were speeches about transforming Afghanistan the way Europe was rebuilt after World War II. There was a rush for elections, to create the trappings of a model democracy. Outside countries were invited in — many of which volunteered in hopes that they would not be sucked into providing forces in Iraq. Each was given a job. Japan would disarm 100,000 former fighters; Britain would mount the antinarcotics program; Italy would create a model judiciary; Germany would train the police.
There was no central coordination. As Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, once complained, “When everyone’s responsible, no one is responsible.” The failures fed the Taliban’s argument that outsiders should be ejected. “The mistaken mission creep in Afghanistan during the Bush years was moving from counterterrorism after 9/11 — to destroy Al Qaeda — to nation building and the objective of implanting Western-style democracy,” said Robert Blackwill, who coordinated the policy for Mr. Bush at the National Security Council. “Given the history and culture of Afghanistan, that was always many bridges too far.”
No one knows what would have happened if those efforts had succeeded. But now Mr. Obama has swung strongly in the other direction. “We are not there to nation-build,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden said last week. (Though follow Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on her visits to the country, and you will see a range of projects, including new schools for girls, that look a lot like nation building.) The question now is: If the Bush administration created false hopes, will the Obama administration create too little hope?
IV. THE MAGIC AND CURSE OF DEADLINES
President Obama added a new element to the ever-evolving Afghan strategy last December: deadlines. Or at least the hint of one.
By this time next summer, the American “surge” forces in Afghanistan are supposed to begin flowing out. How fast is a matter of fierce debate, inside the administration and out. Mr. Obama’s intention was clear: He wanted Afghan forces to know that they would soon have to defend their own country; he wanted the Afghan government to know that it could no longer stay holed up in Kabul, counting on the Americans to keep the country together.
But the Taliban exploit and twist Mr. Obama’s schedule, declaring menacingly that after the Americans leave, they will still be around. Some Democrats in Congress argue that if the United States is committed to winding down soon anyway, why suffer more casualties? (July was the worst month for American combat deaths — 66 by unofficial counts — since the war began.)
While the deadline has put pressure on the Karzai government, it has created some sense of desperation among the Americans — particularly in the military — who must show enormous progress in a short time. “This deadline makes every other problem a crisis,” David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who worked in the Bush administration, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the other day. It also “encourages us to continue seeking short-term, quick-fix solutions,” he argued.
And if there is a single lesson of the past nine years, it is that in Afghanistan, quick fixes are no fixes. (Courtesy: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/weekinreview/01sanger.html?_r=1&hpw=&pagewanted=print)