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It hasn’t been 8 years of drift in Afghanistan

It hasn’t been 8 years of drift in Afghanistan

By John Hannah

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens rises to the defense of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Toward the article’s close, Stephens writes that:

It would be  … useful if some of Mr. Karzai’s more acerbic Western critics could ask themselves why matters went abruptly south in Afghanistan after several years in which they had gone swimmingly well under Mr. Karzai. … The answer has a lot less to do with Mr. Karzai’s performance than with NATO.

Stephens’s basic point is worth bearing in mind. Ever since last year’s presidential campaign, there’s been an unfortunate tendency to assess America’s Afghan campaign as one long, steady downward spiral to disaster. “Eight years of drift,” according to Obama administration officials seeking to explain their lengthy deliberations over strategy and troop numbers. But, as Stephens suggests, the reality is a good deal more complex. The fact is that, after a period of genuine progress following the Taliban’s removal in late 2001, the situation in Afghanistan only began to deteriorate markedly between 2005 and 2006. Suicide attacks quintupled that year. Remotely detonated bombs more than doubled. Insurgent attacks nearly tripled. And the trends have steadily worsened every year since. The question is why? What changed in that time period that might help account for the sharp decline in America’s war fortunes?

I certainly don’t have an exhaustive answer, but I do have a few ideas that merit consideration:

1. Zalmay Khalilzad left Afghanistan  

Khalilzad served as President Bush’s special envoy for Afghanistan from the country’s liberation in 2001 until 2003. In 2003, he became U.S. ambassador. Khalilzad had an extraordinary relationship with Karzai, spending hours alone with him on a daily basis — mentoring, advising, reassuring, hectoring (the latter only in private). The relationship allowed Khalilzad to succeed, far more often than not, in getting Karzai to do the right thing. Karzai had enormous confidence in Khalilzad — and, more importantly, in the unflinching U.S. support that was manifested in Khalilzad’s role.

Khalizad left Afghanistan in the summer of 2005. Since then, no other U.S. official has come close to replicating his relationship with Karzai. On the contrary, we’ve seen an ever-widening breach of trust and confidence between Karzai and the United States, bottoming out this spring when the Obama administration let it be known that it was “desperately searching” for an alternative to Karzai. Causal lines are always hard to draw, but it’s difficult not to discern a significant connection between the end of Khalilzad’s tenure in Kabul and the mounting frustrations with Karzai’s performance in Washington. At a minimum, this suggests that now that Karzai’s second term is a done deal, the Obama administration needs urgently to find a way to rebuild its badly tattered relationship with him. Can that be done with the people currently in charge of Afghan policy? That’s a tough question, but it needs to be asked.  

2. NATO assumed overall command for the Afghan mission from the United States.

Most importantly, NATO took over operations in southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, in mid-2006. Karzai and the Afghans fretted throughout 2005 about the planned handover to NATO, urging the U.S. not to follow through. Despite repeated assurances from Washington, the Afghans palpably feared that the transition to NATO reflected the start of America’s ultimate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Psychologically, this perception of declining U.S. commitment almost certainly had the dual effect of dangerously demoralizing the Afghan government and people (resulting in counter-productive hedging behavior), while emboldening the Taliban.

Similarly, the Pakistani government — believing the United States to be once again headed for the Afghan exits — was encouraged even further in its double game of maintaining an “option” for returning a friendly Taliban to power in Kabul.

Militarily, the shift to NATO, particularly in the south, undeniably resulted in a significant loss of combat effectiveness on perhaps the war’s most important front. While America’s British, Dutch, and Canadian allies fought valiantly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, they were no match — frequently by their own admission — for the extraordinary fighting skills of their U.S. counterparts.  With only some exaggeration, a senior Afghan official once told President Bush that 800 U.S. troops had generated a greater sense of security and well-being among the population in Helmand than 8,000 NATO forces.

Finally, at an administrative level, putting the 26-member alliance in charge made a hash of command and control in the Afghan theater, undermining severely the unity of military and civilian effort that is essential to successful warfare, especially counter-insurgency operations.

Whatever the merits of ramping up NATO’s role — e.g., the importance of multilateralism; the need to divert greater U.S. attention and resources to the deteriorating situation in Iraq — the benefits, in retrospect, have not been worth the costs in terms of advancing U.S. war aims. Since late 2008, the United States has been engaged in a delicate effort to re-balance the relationship between America and NATO, and to once again take ownership of the Afghan war in a much more aggressive way. The Obama administration’s decisions on increasing troop numbers, as well as changes that have already been made in command and control arrangements in Afghanistan, are a crucial part of that essential return to full-blown U.S. leadership of the war effort.

3. America’s failure to hold Pakistan to account for its support of the Taliban became fully manifested.

I vividly recall that from 2003 onward, Zal Khalilzad repeatedly tried to warn U.S. officials about the need for a strategy that would aggressively counter Pakistani efforts to resurrect the defeated Taliban. President Karzai and his security advisors harped constantly on the same issue. Yet it was all to no avail. Special Afghan pleading, some officials complained. The Musharraf government is already under enough pressure assisting our efforts to kill and capture al Qaeda operatives, others said. Whatever the excuses, far, far too little was done. As a result, by 2005-2006 the Taliban, as a serious insurgent force, began coming back with a vengeance. Even then, Washington was slow to respond in developing a serious policy to address Pakistan’s double-dealing. Not until 2007-2008 did talk get serious about dramatically expanding operations to target Taliban leaders and disrupt their operations in Pakistan. It was only at this point that the United States began putting together a comprehensive diplomatic, economic, and military plan designed to pressure and empower the Pakistani government to act seriously against the Taliban monster it had encouraged along the Afghan border. To its great credit, the Obama administration has expanded and fully resourced this effort with Pakistan in ways that, at long last, are beginning to show signs of tentative progress.

There are, no doubt, a host of other causes that contributed to the war’s downward spiral. But the larger point is that the United States did enjoy a significant period after the Taliban’s downfall when real progress was being made. The causes of that success and why things began going badly need to be studied closely. The bottom line is that the deterioration of recent years was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from real shifts — and failures — of policy, many of which are subject to U.S. control, influence and correction.

It’s, of course, true that the costs the U.S. may need to endure now in correcting past mistakes will almost certainly be higher than if we’d gotten it right the first time. But not nearly as high as the costs of allowing the Taliban to return to power, allied with al Qaeda, with its sights firmly set on taking over a nuclear-armed Pakistan.      

David McNew/Getty Images