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Parsing Steve Walt’s ‘Top 10 Mistakes’ About Afghanistan

Parsing Steve Walt’s ‘Top 10 Mistakes’ About Afghanistan

Steve Walt will get no argument from me when he lists President Obama’s withdraw deadline as one of the top 10 biggest mistakes in the war in Afghanistan. He also lists, rightly, losing public support, failure to exploit early gains at Tora Bora, and a few other items that are mostly on-target.  In his recent essay, Walt correctly points out that U.S. Policy had its flaws, but I take issue with four of his 10 points.

1. The United States didn’t go it alone. Walt repeats an old saw that the United States wanted to wage a unilateral war in Afghanistan. In March 2002-just six months after 9/11-there were 17 nations contributing forces to Operation Enduring Freedom.  The coalition has continued to grow. In 2005 30 countries were contributing to International Security Assistance Force.  Today there are more than 40. 

The coalition was smaller at the beginning because few countries have the logistical capabilities to muster and deploy an expeditionary force halfway across the world on short notice. The United States was relatively on its own in the beginning because few others had the capability to contribute. What they could contribute-including Special Forces and counterterrorism units-was small but effective.

2. The Afghan constitution. There is a myth, universally believed, that U.S. diplomats personally drafted the 2004 Afghan constitution and are directly responsible for the historically novel and unprecedentedly centralized form of government that resulted. This has no basis in fact. Walt and many others are apparently unaware that the 2004 constitution is largely a copy-and-paste job from the Afghans’ own 1964 constitution. "We" didn’t write it, the Afghans did-40 years ago. And the highly centralized system of governance captured in both constitutions is nothing new to Afghanistan: Afghan kings have been claiming the same set of highly centralized powers for 130 years. The catch is that some kings have been smarter than others and simply opted not to exercise all the powers that ostensibly belonged to them. Either way, the claim that the United States created a novel, centralized system of government in Afghanistan is a fantasy.

3. The military’s role in the 2009 surge. Walt finds fault that Obama "succumbed to military pressure" to order more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, but then says the surge should have been "far larger and much longer in duration."  But that’s precisely what the military was asking for. Gen. Stanley McChrystal didn’t ask for 30,000 troops: he asked for 80,000 and no deadline. Obama didn’t succumb to military pressure. Rather, he rejected military advice, sent fewer troops than the military (or Walt) thought should be sent, and then imposed an artificial deadline on their campaign. I think Walt is right that the surge was mishandled, but mistaken in trying to blame it on the military.

4.  Pakistan.  Walt argues that U.S. policymakers "never fully appreciated" that the war could not be won without Pakistan’s cooperation. On the contrary, everyone knows and has known that Pakistan is key to the equation. The 2006, 2008, and 2009 strategy reviews all bear witness that the United States understood Pakistan’s importance.  The problem was not lack of understanding about Pakistan’s importance: the problem was, by and large, a naïve belief in Pakistan’s desire to cooperate and a miscalculation about how Pakistan perceives its national interests. 

Policymakers in both the Bush and Obama administrations seemed to believe that Pakistan understood the threat from jihadist groups, including the Taliban, and truly wanted to defeat them but just didn’t have enough resources. That is almost certainly false. If the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can publicly declare that the Haqqani Network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, as Admiral Mullen did in 2011, we can be certain that the problem is will, not capacity. Pakistan, at least the parts of its government that seem to be calling the shots for its Afghan policy, generally seems to be opposed to what the United States is trying to accomplish there.

Walt may have missed the mark in spots, but he is correct in pointing out that mistakes were made.