What was the West's biggest failure in Afghanistan? Rory Stewart, who once walked across Afghanistan in winter and now walks the corridors of Whitehall, makes the case that the intervention was doomed from the outset, that "the West always lacked the knowledge, power, or legitimacy to fundamentally transform Afghanistan." Seth G. Jones, author of In the Graveyard of Empires, argues that history should have provided a lesson: "The U.S. failure to stop Pakistan is particularly egregious because the United States was involved in an almost identical program 30 years ago -- with the ISI's help -- against the Soviets in Afghanistan." Here's what some of the foremost experts on the conflict -- from former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick W. Kagan -- identified as the biggest mistakes of the long war.
Rory Stewart: Trying to do the impossible
Pervez Musharraf: Marginalizing the Pashtuns
Seth G. Jones: Allowing a sanctuary in Pakistan
Amrullah Saleh: Believing Pakistan could change
Sherard Cowper-Coles: Never developing a political strategy
Sarah Chayes: Turning Afghanistan over to criminals
Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn: Failing to understand Afghanistan
Frederick W. Kagan: Leaving in 2014
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Rory Stewart: Trying to do the impossible
Many have argued that the problem with the Afghanistan
intervention is that it "wasn't done right": If only we had not been distracted
by Iraq, had tackled the right warlords, pursued the correct counterinsurgency strategy,
and surged earlier, it would have been fine. But they are wrong. The problem
was much more basic: The West was trying to do something it couldn't do, and it was trying to do something it didn't need to do. Its basic assumptions were wrong.
Afghanistan did not pose an existential threat to international security; the
problem was not that it was a "failed state." The truth is that the West always
lacked the knowledge, power, or legitimacy to fundamentally transform
Afghanistan. But policymakers were too afraid, too hypnotized by fashionable theories,
too isolated from Afghan reality, and too laden with guilt to notice that the
more ambitious Afghanistan mission was impossible and unnecessary.
Policymakers grotesquely exaggerated the threat from Afghanistan. They convinced themselves that
unless they created a stable, effective, pro-Western regime, Afghanistan would
pose an overwhelming terrorist threat to the West, destroy the credibility of
the United States and NATO, and undermine the stability of Pakistan (the domino
theory ran, "If Afghanistan falls, mad mullahs will get their hands on nukes in
None of this was true. The initial intervention succeeded
as soon as it pushed al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. Thereafter, Afghanistan was
only one among 20 countries that should have concerned the West, and it was far
from being the most important. Afghanistan was not what made Pakistan dangerous
-- Pakistan was what made Pakistan dangerous. If the West's priority was terrorism,
Pakistan mattered more; if regional stability, Egypt; if poverty, most of sub-Saharan
Africa. The West's interests and obligations in Afghanistan only justified a light
military presence and generous development projects.
Second, policymakers were captivated by the promises of
"counterinsurgency" and "state-building" doctrines and by the idea that there
were professionals who "knew" how to do these things. In reality, such "doctrines"
were flimsy edifices, often based on selective evidence, misleading historical
and geographical comparisons (British Malaya, the American Philippines, Bosnia),
and flawed logic. The concepts on which such doctrines rested -- such as "the
rule of law" or "civil society" -- had only the most indirect application to
the way justice was administered and accepted in the villages where 80 percent
of Afghans lived.
And even on its own terms, counterinsurgency called for
secure borders, the consent of the local population, and credible government.
Did any of these exist? Most Afghans were disappointed and suspicious. Enough
people wanted to kill Westerners to make close interaction -- even in army and police
training, let alone rural development -- risky. All of the West's state-building and
counterinsurgency initiatives, which relied on a high degree of trust or a
deep interaction with local culture and politics, were implausible. Foreigners lacked
the knowledge, skill, local commitment, and support that would have been
required to transform the Afghan state or defeat the Taliban. All this has been
clear since 2005.
But policymakers were too isolated from the reality of
Afghanistan to see that their theories were bad and their mission impossible.
Even officials and soldiers on the ground did not speak Afghan languages well.
Because of the terrorist threat, they were often locked in embassies and bases
or were on short tours. They were unable to develop a profound, long-term
understanding of rural society. And the military was inherently
optimistic. Psychologically, failure was not an option. Fear and fantasy were reinforced by guilt. Thousands of U.S. and allied soldiers had been killed. Hundreds
of billions of dollars had been spent. Promises had been made and expectations
raised. Politicians insisted that they had a moral obligation to the Afghan
people, particularly women, and that no soldier would die in vain. All these
factors blocked an objective assessment of the risks, the costs, and the
benefits of operations in Afghanistan.
This mindset culminated in the 2009 surge devised by
Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus: a military counterinsurgency
strategy predicated on a state-building strategy. The strategy required the creation of a credible, effective,
legitimate Afghan state. But what were the chances of that? The state-building
theorists could not provide a concrete regional example of the state they
proposed. (Would it be like Iran? Like Pakistan? Like Turkmenistan?) And even
if they could have described it, there was no evidence that they had the
ability to create such a place or that it would help U.S. national security to
do so. It was the same Afghan government and the same President Hamid Karzai that
they had worked with for eight years -- why did they think things would
change? The surge, therefore -- at a cost of thousands of foreign lives,
tens of thousands of Afghan lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars -- improved
the Afghan National Army, but it failed to transform the basic context of insurgency,
corruption, weak government, and instability.
And how could it? The problem was not that the West didn't do it
right -- the problem was that it tried the surge at all. A light presence of
the sort it had in 2003 was justifiable and constructive. But given the
structures, the attitudes, the incentives, and the ambitions of the NATO soldiers,
politicians, and civilians on the one hand, and the nature of Afghan culture and
society on the other, the more ambitious Afghanistan mission was doomed to fail. Only
our fantasies, our fears, and our guilt prevented us from seeing the truth of
the situation, and they prevent us now from acknowledging our failure, and our shame.
Rory Stewart is a member of the British Parliament and author of The Places in Between, about his 2002 walk across Afghanistan.
Next: Pervez Musharraf on marginalizing the Pashtuns
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Pervez Musharraf: Marginalizing the Pashtuns
United States has blundered through South Asia over the past quarter-century, committing
three major errors that have destabilized the region and led to the rise of
first big mistake was back in 1989. Having defeated the Soviet Union with the
help of Pakistan and the Afghan mujahideen,
the Americans abandoned Afghanistan and distanced themselves from Pakistan. To
add insult to injury, the United States also developed strategic relations with
India, Pakistan's longtime rival.
United States completely switched sides: While Pakistan was its strategic
partner since 1948, now India was its primary regional ally.
Pakistan, meanwhile, was slapped with sanctions.
result for Afghanistan was tragic. Warlordism gripped the country for 12 years,
from 1989 until 2001, as ethnic groups fought each other for power, ravaging
Afghanistan in the process. Some elements of the mujahideen coalesced into al Qaeda, and in 1996 the Taliban gained
control of Kabul. All this happened
in these 12 years because the United States lost interest in this region and
lost any interest in Pakistan.
second U.S. blunder was its attempt to isolate the Taliban once they came to
power. Pakistan was the only country that recognized the Taliban when they established a government in 1996. When U.S. President Bill Clinton came to Pakistan in
2000, he was almost reprimanding my country for dealing with the Taliban,
and he urged Pakistan to sever diplomatic relations with them.
suggested a different strategy: The world and the United States should recognize
the Taliban and open diplomatic missions in Afghanistan. They should work with
the Taliban to moderate their behavior. Clinton didn't agree, of course, and
the United States continued its policy of isolation.
A U.S. policy of engagement could have prevented all the destruction that
would come later. Had U.S. diplomats built ties to the Taliban at this point, maybe
we could have also resolved the Osama bin Laden tangle, because we could have
jointly put pressure on Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the Taliban government. Unfortunately,
it was only Pakistan, and we were alone. I sent five delegations of all kinds
of people, including religious leaders, to persuade Mullah Omar to abandon bin
Laden. If there had also been diplomatic relations with the United States and
other Western countries, we could have put even more pressure on him. And
maybe the 9/11 attacks would not have taken place. It's a big thing that I'm
saying, but I believe it.
the 9/11 attacks, the United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan and defeated
the Taliban. Then the United States made its third blunder: It failed to
convert its military victory in Afghanistan into a political victory. It forged
a government in Kabul that could not win the support of the population,
resulting in the resurgence of the Taliban in 2005 and 2006. We needed to
install a government that was dominated by the Pashtuns, because Pashtuns are the
largest Afghan community.
because the United States had defeated the Taliban with the help of the Northern
Alliance, which was primarily made up of ethnic minorities, it unfortunately felt
compelled to install them in government. I was of the view that the United
States first had to bring the Pashtuns on board and use them to defeat the
Taliban. I coined a term at that time: "All Taliban are Pashtuns, but all
Pashtuns are not Taliban."
the United States didn't listen. The Americans installed a government in Kabul
with the Northern Alliance, and all the Pashtuns who were initially not a part
of the Taliban felt alienated. They gradually started to gravitate toward the
Taliban, resulting in the group's resurgence in 2005 and 2006. This was the
United States' biggest blunder, but it persisted on going down this path and
continues doing so even now. This is a grave mistake, and unless it is
corrected, we will not be able to make progress.
Pervez Musharraf was president of Pakistan from 2001 to 2008.
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Seth G. Jones: Allowing a sanctuary in Pakistan
In November 2010, while working for U.S. Special Operations
Command, I traveled to the U.S. base in Shkin along the Afghanistan-Pakistan
border. Several dirt roads snake through the area, but virtually none are
paved. The dusty, parched landscape is strangely reminiscent of Frederic
Remington or C.M. Russell's paintings of the American West.
Shkin serves as a microcosm of one of the most significant
weaknesses of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: a failure to address the insurgent
sanctuary in Pakistan. As U.S. officials pointed out at Shkin, the Taliban and
other insurgent groups use their safe haven in Pakistan to live, train, rearm,
and conduct strategic and operational planning.
More alarmingly, individuals from Pakistan's premier spy agency,
the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the Pakistan military provide
lethal and nonlethal support to Afghan insurgents. In fact, Pakistan is
running one of the most successful covert-action programs today against a major
power -- and against the United States, no less. The U.S. failure to stop
Pakistan is particularly egregious because the United States was involved in an
almost identical program 30 years ago -- with the ISI's help -- against the
Soviets in Afghanistan.
Islamabad's rationale for supporting Afghan insurgents is
straightforward and, in many ways, understandable. Hemmed in by its archenemy,
India, to the east, Pakistan wants an ally to the west. It doesn't have one at
the moment. Instead, the Afghan government has developed a close relationship
with New Delhi. Feeling strategically encircled by India, Islamabad has
resorted to proxy warfare to replace the current Afghan government with a
friendlier regime. With U.S. forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, Pakistan
could get its wish.
Yet this outcome was not inevitable. The United States made three key
mistakes along the way.
First, U.S. policymakers failed to develop an effective
regional strategy that involved Afghanistan's neighbors. At the December 2001 conference
in Bonn, Germany, U.S. and other Western diplomats pulled together the regional
powers, including India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, to agree on a way forward
in Afghanistan. They mutually supported the creation of an Afghan government
led by Hamid Karzai and pledged international aid. After Bonn, however, there
was no follow-on institution to ensure regional collaboration, and cooperation
quickly devolved into security competition.
Second, the United States and Pakistan failed to target the Taliban
sanctuary in Pakistan. The United States has conducted drone strikes in
Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. But senior Taliban leaders
are located hundreds of miles south in Baluchistan province and
Neither the United States nor Pakistan has targeted the
Taliban's command-and-control network there. Instead, the Taliban's leader,
Mullah Omar, is thought to reside in Baluchistan, well outside the
area where drone strikes are occurring. The Taliban's inner shura, its most important
decision-making body, has also been safe from U.S. strikes. The inner shura provides strategic guidance for
the insurgency, exercises some command and control, and is the largest
fundraiser. Baluchistan has been so safe for Taliban leaders that most have
moved their families there and have sent their children to Pakistani schools,
according to a range of U.S., European, and Pakistan officials I interviewed.
Third, U.S. and Afghan leaders failed to co-opt as many
former Taliban leaders as they could after Bonn, sending them to prisons at Bagram Airfield or Guantánamo Bay. This was a mistake. The Taliban represented a faction
of Afghan society that could not be indefinitely excluded from the country's
political and economic life. Consequently, Taliban leaders, including several
who were considering reconciling with the Afghan government, slipped across
the border into Pakistan.
Standing at Shkin, looking into Pakistan, I had a sinking
feeling that the war in Afghanistan might not be winnable without undermining
the sanctuary. The odds are stacked against counterinsurgency success.
According to a Rand Corp. study I led in 2008, the success rate of
insurgent groups significantly rises when they have support from an outside
power. Those insurgencies that received support from external states won more
than 50 percent of the time, while those with no support won only 17 percent of
the time. But that's not all. Insurgents have been successful approximately 43
percent of the time when they enjoyed a sanctuary.
Afghan insurgents enjoy both outside support and sanctuary, a doubly difficult hurdle
for the United States and its allies to overcome. Ten years after the
United States helped overthrow the Taliban regime, it is remarkable that
successive U.S. administrations have refused to target the Taliban safe haven
in Baluchistan. The Soviet Union made a similar mistake in the 1980s when it
failed to act against the seven major mujahideen
groups headquartered in Pakistan.
In his book The Bear
Trap, Mohammad Yousaf, who headed the ISI's covert war in Afghanistan
against the Soviets, wrote that the insurgent sanctuary in Pakistan was
essential to defeating the Soviets and winning the insurgency. Sadly, Yousaf's revelation
remains just as true today.
Seth G. Jones of Rand Corp. is former senior advisor to the U.S. Special Operations Forces commanding general in Afghanistan. He is the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan.
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Amrullah Saleh: Believing Pakistan could change
In Afghanistan, politics are a matter of life and death.
Right now, the Afghan people are anxiously waiting to see what becomes of their
country after 2014, when NATO ends its combat mission here. The strength of the
insurgency has prompted them to ask a simple question: Is NATO losing and the Taliban
From rural farmers all the way to the educated urban elite,
there is widespread confusion about the role the United States is playing in their
country. Afghans complain that Washington is financing both sides of the
conflict: Even as it subsidizes the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF),
which are fighting the Taliban insurgency, the United States is providing significant
financial and military aid to Pakistan, the key country sponsoring the anti-NATO
This lack of clarity has fostered an atmosphere of mistrust.
It has given birth to conspiracy theories that the United States doesn't want the
war to end -- why else would it fund both sides in a war?
The truth of the matter is that the United States is simply
too afraid of Pakistan to sever ties with it. Islamabad is capitalizing on the
West's fear and short-term security concerns, and its army and intelligence
establishment have a long history of supporting Islamist extremists for their
own ends. The West sees these radicals as one of its primary security challenges
and has decided it is better off proceeding as if nothing is wrong with its
relationship with Pakistan.
After all, confronting Pakistan directly could cost Western
lives. Several European countries have significant populations of naturalized
citizens of Pakistani origin. These Pakistani Europeans travel to Pakistan's
tribal areas -- a primary hub for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist
outfits. Members of Western intelligence circles believe that without maintaining good
relations with the Pakistani military and the intelligence establishment, there
is a risk that the 9/11 attacks could be repeated.
Dealing with Pakistan, therefore, has become a necessary
evil. Western strategists are sitting on piles of intelligence implicating
Pakistan in major terrorism plots -- such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which
claimed 166 lives -- yet the country
is not treated as an enemy. Doing so would be too costly: Pakistan is, after
all, a nuclear-armed state, the patron for terrorist groups across the region,
and home to 180 million people. The West simply lacks the guts and resources to
officially treat Pakistan as a threat.
NATO and particularly the United States therefore imagine
Pakistan as part of the strategic solution. If only Islamabad would use its
deep knowledge of militant groups to quash them, they believe, the world could
strike a mortal blow against terrorism. Particularly following the 9/11 attacks, the
West hoped that Pakistan would change course -- and in doing so, shift the
strategic balance in the region. There was only one problem with that logic:
Islamabad had no intention of playing along.
Because of Pakistani meddling, Afghanistan has not been able
to create NATO's hoped-for shift in the balance of power by itself. Despite
enormous progress, the country lacks the military strength to defend itself
against its scheming neighbors and their extremist militant proxies. Kabul's signing
of strategic partnership agreements with a number of NATO countries and India
has provided Afghanistan with some strategic depth -- but it is not enough.
Despite the resources that NATO has poured into Afghanistan,
the ANSF will remain dependent on international assistance for some time. The
army and police force is primarily designed for quelling domestic violence. It
lacks the required air and ground capabilities to defend Afghanistan from
Over a decade after the NATO invasion of Afghanistan and
less than two years before the withdrawal of most international forces, it's
fair to say this isn't where anyone hoped my country would be right now. But
the question remains: What can be done now to conclusively drive terrorism out
of Afghanistan and bring peace and stability to the lives of millions of
The Afghan government is pushing for a military defeat of
the Taliban, which would halt Pakistan's use of militant extremism as the means
to promote its foreign policy. But the U.S. government's policy of maintaining
links with Pakistan has strengthened it in the region and beyond. Islamabad's
support for militant groups gives it leverage over NATO and its neighbors -- and
it won't relinquish this asset easily.
Kabul knows better than to expect a second "surge" from the
U.S. military. But if the Taliban remain resilient and determined not to
negotiate in good faith with the government, something must be done. There has
to be an ANSF surge -- a robust increase in training and equipment from NATO
An increase in Afghan fighting capacity will be inevitable
in the next two years, even if Kabul and the Taliban do launch negotiations.
Whatever happens, there will be a few more fighting seasons yet: Cleared areas
of Afghanistan need to be held, communication lines must be kept open, and
major population centers defended. Maintaining military pressure on the
Taliban is key for survival of the pluralistic state in Afghanistan. Otherwise,
the democratic space will shrink, and the Taliban's bargaining power in future
talks will increase further.
Empowering the ANSF to take the fight to the Taliban isn't
just important for Afghanistan -- it's also imperative for the United States. NATO
needs an exit strategy that doesn't leave Afghanistan in chaos and that does leave behind
a legitimate government, so that the country doesn't once again become a haven for terrorists.
Some analysts have tried to paint this war as a conflict
between Afghans. It isn't. In reality, it is a war between a Pakistan-supported
militant group and the rest of the world. There are only two possible
solutions: A Western-backed Afghan government decisively defeats the Taliban,
or the Taliban agree to demilitarize and join the political process. The
United States, however, should understand one thing very clearly: It would be making
a huge error -- and confirming the Afghan people's worst fears -- if it picked
up and left Afghanistan to the Taliban's brutal ways.
Amrullah Saleh was head of Afghanistan's intelligence service from 2004 to 2010.
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Sherard Cowper-Coles: Never developing a political strategy
In the 2001-2014 Afghanistan war, the West's
biggest unforced error was to imagine that stabilizing a territory in the state
in which Afghanistan found itself in October 2001 could be done easily or
quickly, and mainly by military force. Once the Rubicon of armed intervention
had been crossed, however, the West's worst mistake has been never to develop a
serious political strategy within which an essentially tactical military
campaign could nest.
The flaw at the heart of this whole unnecessary
tragedy has been the "peace" agreed at the December 2001 conference convened outside Bonn, Germany. In the weeks before that ill-starred meeting, American and other
special forces and intelligence operatives, aided by air power, had helped the revived
Northern Alliance push the Taliban out of power, first from Kabul, then from
their great southern redoubt of Kandahar, and finally from all of Afghanistan's other
major towns and cities. But the Taliban had not, as the West's limited grasp of the
situation led it then to think, been defeated. Instead, they had done what
irregular forces have done throughout history when confronted by superior conventional
force: They had pulled back to fight another day and in their own way, at times
and places of their choosing. They withdrew across the Durand Line into the
great sanctuaries in Pakistan. They went out like the tide, and, behind the
backs of those soon preoccupied with launching another intervention in Iraq,
came slowly back in again, like the tide.
In the West's initial rush to sort Afghanistan, it relied on the simplistic analysis that because the Taliban had given shelter to
al Qaeda, both groups were inseparably members of the internationalist
terrorist jihadi movement. The West did not give the Taliban a seat at the Bonn conference. It failed to recognize that, however painful to accept, the Taliban were representative
of some sections of Afghan society. It tried to resolve in one single political
conference a conflict from which Afghanistan had already been suffering for
nearly a quarter-century when the West came blundering in. Unwittingly, the West was in fact taking sides in a civil war, a still-unresolved struggle between town
and country, modernism and tradition, socialism and capitalism, religion and
secularism. The result was a victors' peace in which the vanquished -- who
hadn't even really been vanquished -- had no part and no stake. In the series
of loya jirgas that followed and in
the local and regional settlements the West favored, it compounded the error by
abolishing a respected Afghan monarchy -- against the wishes of a majority of
Afghans -- and by giving Afghanistan an overly centralized constitution and a
system of government relying on semifeudal characters who held the population
by fear, not respect, and on parvenus, riding on the back of the intervention,
who had held no sway before it.
The fruit of Gen. David Petraeus's year at Fort
Leavenworth, the Counterinsurgency Field
Manual, makes clear that counterinsurgency
is mostly political. Such a strategy, including a "diplomatic surge" to
accompany the military surge, has long been promised. In more than a decade
of war, however, the West has never developed, let alone communicated to those it is fighting, a credible vision of what a new, inclusive political settlement
for Afghanistan might look like. Instead, at least until recently, it has stumbled around in the foothills of talks about talks. It has never sought to
engage Afghanistan's neighbors, with an even greater stake in a stable Afghanistan than it has, seriously and collectively as partners in the search for peace. Instead, it has indulged the fantasy that one-day conferences and serial bilateralism
offer credible means of engaging their support.
Referring to Northern Ireland's aborted
Sunningdale peace agreement of 1973, a local member of British Parliament, Seamus
Mallon, once remarked that the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement was
"Sunningdale for slow learners." The elements of the original peace deal -- power-sharing
between Protestants and Catholics, a role for the Irish government -- were
there all along and were essential building blocks in the eventual settlement.
But in Afghanistan, the West has sent its men and
women, as well as those of the Afghan National Security Forces, to fight and die to
enforce a peace that was never a true peace, in support of a constitution that
few Afghans believe can long survive unchanged after the withdrawal of Western
But in Afghanistan it is never too late. Perhaps
now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will do what their predecessors
should have done, and work with all the main parties to the Afghan conflict -- inside
and outside the country -- to describe and then develop the kind of political
settlement that can bring three and a half decades of fighting to an end. That
will be the best way to honor the sacrifice of blood and treasure, by the West,
and by countless brave and patriotic Afghans.
Sherard Cowper-Coles was the British foreign secretary's
special representative to Afghanistan
and Pakistan from 2009 to 2010.
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Sarah Chayes: Turning Afghanistan over to criminals
U.S. policy toward
Afghanistan has been crippled by profound flaws since the decision to intervene
was made in the wake the 9/11 attacks. Most flaws stem from a view
of the mission that remained consistently -- across both George W. Bush's and
Barack Obama's administrations -- constrained to combating the immediate violent
manifestations of extremism: terrorist actions, or plans to conduct them,
against U.S. interests.
With that focus on symptoms
trumping all other considerations, U.S. policy ironically fanned the flames of
the very extremism it was supposedly trying to counter. It succeeded in driving
a country that was desperate to be rid of Taliban rule back into the Taliban's arms,
because the alternative, for many Afghans, was not a lot better. And it is
leaving behind a region even more laden with extremist currents, and more volatile
and unstable, than it was in 2001.
Inside Afghanistan, this
terrorism fixation played itself out in a willingness to cultivate any self-styled
Afghan leader so long as he made it look like he was helping to target the Taliban. In
the first years, this meant ushering warlords -- often the same blood-drenched
criminals Afghans had repudiated in turning to the Taliban in the early 1990s
-- back into the country and into power. President Hamid Karzai's tentative
move to curb these reborn strongmen in the spring of 2003 was overridden by
U.S. officials, leaving him little alternative but to conciliate them. Over
time, gorged on U.S. material and moral support and their resulting impunity,
these men evolved into a set of overlapping, vertically integrated criminal
syndicates that, at best, masqueraded as a government.
Allied with this monster,
unwilling to make the least effort to bring it to heel, the U.S. government tried
-- and predictably failed -- to gain traction against the burgeoning Taliban, whose
alarming expansion had attracted U.S. attention by 2008.
The excuses not to address
abusive public corruption were rife. Corruption, international civilian and military
officials repeatedly countered when I raised the issue, was "cultural." It was
the way Afghans do business. Yet, in nearly 10 years living among the
population in Kandahar, I only heard that argument from foreigners. Afghans
were incensed at the corruption we internationals were enabling, and they
defined it precisely: Any time a person had to use money to make a public
servant do his job, or could use it to make him refrain from doing his job,
that was corruption. Or, as one weather-beaten grape-grower from the western
outskirts of Kandahar put it: "When a district governor grabs all the
reconstruction money for himself and surrounds himself with armed thugs so the
people can't reach him to bring their complaints, that's corruption."
Corruption, went the international
consensus, would take decades to root out. (The implication: So why bother
starting now?) More recently, some have
argued that to survive, Karzai has to buy off the corrupt power-brokers -- that
he is in effect just a politician, using political pork to keep his band of
rivals in check. The way retired U.S. Ambassador James Dobbins recently framed this
argument, corruption is actually holding Afghanistan together: "Karzai has
built an effective patronage network that allows him to exert a significant
degree of influence across sectarian lines in that country and across
geographic lines in the country. And formal institutions of the kind that have
been built … simply aren't up to exerting that degree of control and
This argument suffers
from two flaws. First, were it not for initial U.S. support, those power brokers
would not have been in such an impregnable position. Second, Karzai and the
members of his network are not synonymous with Afghan stability. It is not Karzai
who is likely to swell the ranks of the Taliban (though he has threatened
to do just that). Ordinary Afghans are the ones who join the insurgency, and ignoring
their legitimate grievances with a government the West has essentially installed
over them is a pretty good way to get them to do so.
During the brief period
culminating in late 2010 when the United States did pay some lip service to
using its leverage to address Afghan government corruption, the favored analysis
sliced the problem into separate morsels -- the better to ignore some of them. Afghanistan,
U.S. State Department officials argued, suffered from three species of
corruption: "petty" corruption, otherwise known as "functional" corruption,
which greases the machinery so is better left alone; "grand" corruption, often
too politically explosive to grapple with; and "predatory" corruption, the real
problem, for it serves as an irritant in Afghans' everyday lives. An interagency anti-corruption plan drafted
in September 2010 essentially boiled such predatory corruption down to police
shakedowns at checkpoints and during searches, and it put the NATO military
training mission in charge of addressing predatory corruption.
Such a description and
limited prescription ignore how structured and vertically integrated
Afghanistan's kleptocracy has grown. The police officer working a lucrative
corner in Kandahar city has rented his spot on the street. He pays a portion of
his shakedowns to his immediate superior, who pays a share in turn up the line --
which reaches through the provincial police chief to the interior minister. Kandahar
judges send a monthly cut of the money they extract for favorable decisions to
the chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court. Governorships are for sale. In return for the
cash flowing upward in this structure, Karzai guarantees those below him protection
from any repercussions. From my vantage point at the international military
headquarters in Kabul, where I advised two commanders, I watched him block
search warrants, demote prosecutors, and release key corruption suspects from
preventive detention -- all while mouthing enough anti-corruption rhetoric to assuage
How U.S. officials
expected Afghans to take risks on behalf of a government that was preoccupied
with shaking them down, not improving their lives, is hard to understand. But
the persistence of this illogical dogma, as well as the heavy emphasis -- under both
Bush and Obama -- on the military dimensions of the Afghanistan engagement, on how
many troops should be sent when and where, points to a broader problem with the
conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
seem paradoxically more apt to take military risks than diplomatic or political
risks. Afghan corruption and governance -- like the tissue of grievances that
might give rise to extremism in the African Sahel or in Yemen, or the stalemate
between Israel and Palestine, or the challenges of expanding diplomatic
channels with China -- are seen as too difficult, too complex, to engage. So, for a decade, the interagency debate on Afghanistan became a logistics
problem, obsessing on numbers of troops, and skirted the
conflict's underlying political drivers.
Now, once again, the
United States is fixated on logistics: How many soldiers will be removed, how
fast, and how to ensure the smoothest possible passage for them and their
materiel out of Afghanistan. All other considerations are subordinated to this
physics problem. Meanwhile, the civilian dimensions and instruments of U.S.
power abroad continue to atrophy, and with them, America's influence.
Sarah Chayes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She served as special advisor to two commanders of international troops in Afghanistan and to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Next: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn on failing to understand Afghanistan
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Previous: Sarah Chayes on turning Afghanistan over to criminals
Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn: Failing to understand Afghanistan
Afghanistan is the kind of place where
the unbelievable actually happens. History
repeats itself here: The parade of foreigners who have come to this
war-ravaged country seem to have learned and understood nothing about the place
where so much money has been spent and where so many have perished.
There was the senior foreign commander who didn't know what the major Islamist
militant group, Hezb-e-Islami, was; the Afghan interpreter with U.S. forces in
Kandahar who couldn't speak to residents of a village because he did not know
the local language, Pashto; the senior U.S. contractor who couldn't have cared
less about monitoring and evaluation and would tell you plainly that he was
here to bribe people; the Taliban engineer who would come to evaluate a
building project commissioned by international forces and calculate the tax
that would be levied. Through it all, there was the hugely expensive
disarmament process of illegal militias and armed groups, followed by the
hugely expensive rearmament process sanctioned by the U.S. military.
It might be hard to believe, but it did
not need to be this way.
Back in 2001, when U.S. Special Forces
arrived to assist America's Afghan allies in toppling the Taliban, there was
actually a decent amount of expertise on Afghanistan. Yes, many had paid scant
attention during the mid-1990s, but there were still intelligence professionals,
aid workers, and academic area experts who could have provided invaluable input
America, however, with its eyes ever set
on the future, forgot to pay attention to the past. The 9/11 attacks
demanded action -- speed mattered, and the opinions of those better informed
did not. Rather than rely on expert knowledge, the United States simply drowned
Afghanistan in money.
The funds spent on the war effort have
been one of the most corrosive aspects of the international engagement. They have
fueled the fragmentation of local communities and have artificially inflated
local markets -- making kings out of some shopkeepers in places where chance
fated their area to be flooded with dollar bills.
In some cases, money was stolen
outright. Savvy Afghans sold a building report and a couple of photographs to Canadian
reconstruction teams for half a million dollars, but never actually built the
stretch of road. They got away with it -- and they did it again, selling the
same report again a couple of troop rotations later. This was business as usual
in Kandahar, because the project was located in an area where it was too risky to
evaluate progress in person.
Even when the United States did try
to grapple with the complexity of Afghanistan, it failed. Most pernicious was then-CIA Director George Tenet's belief, voiced in the days after the 9/11 attacks, that the
Taliban and al Qaeda were more or less the same group. This intelligence
failure continues to haunt the conflict to this day, in much the same way the
mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein was sitting on a pile of weapons of mass destruction was the
original sin of the Iraq war. It cost American lives and hampered the ability
of the United States to deal with Afghanistan's leaders and key power brokers in
The relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda prior
to the 9/11 attacks was far
more fractious than many have claimed. At one point, Taliban leader Mullah
Omar even likened Osama bin Laden to "a bone in my throat." In the
late 1990s, academics and intelligence professionals had already rightly argued
this point, but they were forgotten in the early years of the intervention. Today,
one of the byproducts of the U.S. targeting campaign seems to have been to
drive the two groups closer
The West's engagement also failed to
grasp the importance of personal relationships in Afghanistan. In most cases,
international forces could not even speak to those on whose behalf they were
supposedly fighting, because language training was never a priority until it
was too late. Even more damaging was the lack of language skills of those on
the ground in the orchards of Arghandab or the forests of Kunar, who were
acting as de facto ambassadors for the international effort.
The methods used to try to understand
Afghanistan have also been woefully inadequate. Assessments of "progress"
continue to use deeply flawed opinion polling as the basis for a discussion of
what "the Afghans" (or all too often, the incorrect "Afghanis") think.
Outside contractors used to be brought in as each troop rotation arrived to
write provincial overview reports, failing to realize that those reports had
been commissioned a number of times previously -- but were deleted off the
base's hard drives during the handover.
Even the creation of fancy "smart
metrics," which were supposedly designed to allow the West to "scientifically"
measure the effects of its presence, doesn't do the job. Some assessments are
fraught with errors: The international forces infamously
blamed a clerical mistake after it was revealed that they falsely reported
a drop in violence in 2012. But even when handled correctly, the metrics are
obtuse -- the standard for who qualifies as a militant
"leader" or "facilitator," for example, is both low and vague.
The West also failed to adequately define what
it wanted to do in Afghanistan. Until 2008, international policy was fragmented
and highly volatile: Some commanders and ambassadors came in intent on doing counternarcotics
or counterterrorism, while others emphasized development projects or
cash-for-work programs. To make things even worse, the ever-rotating
employment roster meant that the priorities for commanders and international
actors would change every six to eight months, seemingly at random -- but not
many seemed to notice.
So after more than a decade of
investment of time and money, what has the Afghanistan war taught Westerners? All the
lessons appear to have been about themselves, and very little to do with
Afghanistan itself: The West has developed better technology for countering roadside
bombs, improved methods in combat surgery, and -- most famously
-- honed the art of drone warfare. But it still does not understand how to
interact with and shape the futures of countries where it sends its troops and money.
Looking forward to Jan. 1,
2015, when the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ends, it seems that the one
thing we have figured out is when to quit.
Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn are authors of An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010.
Next: Frederick W. Kagan on leaving in 2014
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Previous: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn on failing to understand Afghanistan
Frederick W. Kagan: Leaving in 2014
President Obama is about to make the
worst mistake of the Afghan war, it seems. He appears ready to announce that
the United States will keep fewer than 10,000 troops in the country after 2014,
a decision tantamount to abandoning Afghanistan and America's interests in
The president and his advisors seem to
have persuaded themselves that the situation in Afghanistan is fundamentally
benign (which is odd, since most Americans think that the situation is
hopeless). White House sources claim that the Afghan National Security Forces
(ANSF) are strong enough to maintain security on their own. Some point
optimistically to the fact that Soviet puppet Mohammad Najibullah survived for
three years after the 1988 Soviet withdrawal.
This argument shows deep ignorance of
Afghanistan. Najibullah's reign ended with his body hanging from a crane in the
center of Kabul. That image remains a vivid icon of failure and personal
catastrophe in Afghan memory. It was followed by a horrific civil war that made
Afghanistan an ideal sanctuary for Osama bin Laden. There was no "decent
interval," and the results were disastrous for America.
Hamid Karzai's military is nowhere near
as well-equipped as Najibullah's, moreover. The Soviets left a large and
well-organized force with tanks, helicopter gunships, and attack aircraft (none
of which the ANSF has). Reflecting
on the fate of that military and government should make anyone serious about
the future stability of Afghanistan shiver. It brings fear to current Afghan
elites. The Soviet withdrawal doomed the Najibullah government. A U.S.
withdrawal will doom the current one.
Some argue that the presence or absence
of American troops makes no difference in Afghanistan, believing that the
enterprise was hopeless to begin with. This argument is incorrect. U.S. and allied troops have been enormously
important in helping to clear enemy safe havens and expanding the capabilities
of the ANSF. Afghanistan will deteriorate when American forces are either
minimal or absent. Worse yet, American and allied forces in Afghanistan today
are essential to preventing all-out civil war and to making counterterrorism
Counterterrorism operations in South
Asia require bases in strategically critical locations such as Khost and
Jalalabad, which a 10,000-soldier force-cap would preclude. Afghanistan's
land-locked geography and impassible terrain make it impossible to replace
boots on the ground with offshore assets. Unlike Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria,
or Iraq Eastern Afghanistan is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Khost
is 28 miles from the principal terrorist sanctuary in Miramshah; Kabul is 138
miles and a 12,000-foot mountain range away. Proximity is essential for
effective targeting, as well as for acquiring the information needed to know
what to target and when. Designing a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan
that surrenders these bases is simply insane.
Nor will the United States be able to
rely exclusively on the ANSF to protect its remaining bases, since the Afghan forces are not adequately
trained, equipped, or capable of surviving on their own, let alone defending American
troops. The ANSF was built, largely in the last three years, to get
foot-soldiers into the fight as quickly as possible while the United States and
NATO provided air support, intelligence and communications support, and
logistics. Efforts are underway to build a support structure for the ANSF, but not
to replace the high-end enablers that the United States routinely gives close allies
such as France and Britain. The ANSF is unlikely to survive in combat without them.
It was never expected to try.
Announcing a minimal post-2014 military
presence will make any sensible counterterrorism strategy impossible. It would
repeat the mistake made after the Soviet withdrawal of imagining that
Afghanistan no longer mattered to American security. It would also repeat
mistakes made in 2002 of believing that Afghanistan would naturally drift in
the right direction even without serious attention. The decision to abandon
Afghanistan again would be by far the worst mistake of this war.
Frederick W. Kagan is director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
Next: Rory Stewart on trying to do the impossible
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