Confessions of a Vulcan

An insider's story of how the Bush administration lost Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

View photos of Afghanistan's army.

View photos of Afghanistan’s army.

When Texas governor George W. Bush began to gather his network of informal national security and foreign policy advisors around him in 1999, neither he nor they initially had much to say about nation building. Bush himself certainly seemed disinclined to raze enemy countries and then spend decades and billions reshaping them. Rather, he spoke of a more "modest" and humble American stance in the world. Condoleezza Rice, who led the small team of advisors whom she had dubbed the Vulcans, went further when she articulated a decidedly negative view of nation building in a major article that appeared in the January 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs.

I was a Vulcan. I was, in other words, one of the original members of a group of eight who advised Bush on foreign and national security policy issues as he made his first run for the White House.

I am proud of my public service in the Bush administration as well as of my service in earlier administrations. I would not be entirely honest, however, if I did not confess disappointment with some of the consequences of Bush administration policies. But my tale is in no way lurid. The administration’s shortcomings were not a consequence of criminality, or moral debasement, or stupidity, or a lack of patriotism and good intentions, as so many frenzied anti-Bush ideologues have charged and, to all appearances, actually believe. The shortcomings were instead a consequence, above all, of the inherent novelty and difficulty of the challenges the administration faced but also of deficiencies of management, understanding, and forethought. Some of these deficiencies were inherent in the structure of today’s federal government, but others were a consequence of flawed leadership. And nowhere, in my estimation, did these deficiencies and flaws accumulate to do more damage than in the case of the war in Afghanistan.

In early spring of 1999, at a meeting of the Vulcans and other senior advisors in the governor’s mansion in Austin, Bush asked whether we would have advocated intervention in Bosnia. All but two of us supported the intervention. I was one of the two dissenters. The other was Dick Cheney. The governor responded by stating that his heart was with the minority, but his head told him it was the right thing to do. Now that the United States had committed itself, he considered withdrawal to be out of the question.

Most of the other Vulcans fell somewhere in between support for and opposition to nation building or regime change. They could be described as "realists," although they were not as openly opposed to military interventions as I was. During the campaign, and indeed not until after 9/11, was there anything remotely unsavory about the term "realist" among the Vulcans. Out of the eight of us, Richard Armitage, Robert Zoellick, Robert Blackwill, and Stephen Hadley, like Rice and indeed Paul Wolfowitz and Cheney, had all served in George H. W. Bush’s administration, which was renowned for the hard-headed realism that governed its foreign policy. Only Richard Perle and Wolfowitz were neoconservatives, although Paul denied, seemingly in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that he really was a "neocon." (Paul seemed to do so largely on the basis that he was not an active supporter of Israel’s conservative Likud Party, whereas most neocons, the majority of them Jewish, were.)

While the Vulcans reached consensus on many issues, there were differences as well. With Perle and Wolfowitz working alongside several hard-core realists, tensions within this group of strong-willed overachievers with different worldviews were inevitable. Paul, in particular, often expressed to me concern about his relations with Condi. But he never made an issue of Iraq, although he never hid his view that there needed to be a change of regime in that country.

No one else made an issue of Iraq either. In fact, to my knowledge the notion of going to war to unseat Saddam was never debated among the Vulcans. Neither Paul nor Richard Perle ever raised the matter; had they done so, the group would have been bitterly divided. Instead, while all the Vulcans agreed that Saddam had to go, policy discussions relating to Iraq during the campaign and the transition centered on toughening sanctions against Baghdad to accelerate the economic squeeze that would lead to the regime’s collapse. And such discussions were not special; Iraq was just one of many thorny foreign policy issues raised and debated. Afghanistan commanded even less attention from the Vulcans than did Iraq. No one spoke about unseating the Taliban. No one pointed out that al Qaeda was in virtual control of pieces of the country. Afghanistan simply was not on anyone’s radar screen in 1999 or the year 2000.

Whatever rifts that did emerge among the Vulcans were never sharp, prolonged, or, most important, public. The group worked well together, whether face-to-face or in weekly conference calls. In part that resulted from the unstated but understood pecking order that existed among the Vulcans. Everyone knew that Condi was the leader and that Paul led on defense issues. Richard Perle, Rich Armitage, Bob Blackwill, Bob Zoellick, Steve Hadley, and I made up the next echelon. To some extent, comity among the Vulcans reflected a common purpose — to ensure the governor’s nomination and then election. In addition, however, the group’s unity was a direct result of Condi Rice’s leadership, which derived ultimately from her relationship to the governor. Their interactions differed qualitatively from those that any of the others had with him: they seemed to communicate on their own special frequency. It was that very special derivative authority, coupled with her willingness to stroke the rather large egos of several of the team’s leading lights, that ensured that everyone pulled in the same direction.


On Sept. 12, 2001, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith and I arrived in the Pentagon conference room about two minutes before the meeting was to start. The service chiefs and secretaries were already there. So was Dick Myers, who had just been promoted from vice chairman to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Paul Wolfowitz, and two other under secretaries. Just after six o’clock the president walked in, with his White House team and Don Rumsfeld in tow.

The president walked around the conference table, shaking hands, saying a few words to each of the people he knew. When we were seated, he proceeded to make clear that not only would the perpetrators of the previous day’s outrages be brought to heel, so too would their sponsors. Although the United States was formally asking the Taliban government in Afghanistan to hand over al Qaeda’s leaders, that evening it was evident that the president was already thinking about military action.

"Down in Texas," he said, "ranchers sometimes get a rash of rattlesnakes. And when those snakes start to move into neighbors’ ranches, the neighbors will ask the rancher to kill the rattlesnakes. And if he won’t do it himself, they’ll do it for him. We’re gonna kill the rattlesnakes," he said grimly, as his eyes seemed to grow smaller and his face tightened. No one misunderstood his meaning: the United States was going to war. And as undersecretary of defense and comptroller, it would be my job to find a way to pay for it.


Donald Rumsfeld was not one to be bothered by criticism of any kind; I am convinced that he possessed the thickest skin that Washington had seen in decades. His agenda after 9/11 could not have been more different from those of his Ivy League and other academic detractors. Eight days after 9/11, Secretary Rumsfeld issued an unclassified snowflake entitled "Thoughts on Terrorism." In it he set the tone for the Department of Defense as it marched to war. At that point the president was emphasizing that all he wanted was for Afghanistan to hand over the al Qaeda perpetrators of the attack. But Rumsfeld stressed that 9/11 was a carefully planned attack and that other planned attacks on the United States were likely. Moreover, the terrorists no doubt "planned how they would hide and what evidence they wished to leave behind for us to find to confuse our search. Therefore," he added," it will take a sustained effort to root them out." He did not appear to be thinking primarily in terms of diplomacy.

Rumsfeld then made the prescient point that "this campaign" that the United States was embarking on "is a marathon, not a sprint." In a veiled dismissal of the Clinton administration’s response to terrorism, Rumsfeld wrote, "no terrorist network such as the al Qaeda network is going to be conclusively dealt with by cruise missiles or bombers. … The fact that the first, second, or third wave of our efforts does not produce specific people [such as bin Laden and his closest associates] should not come as a surprise. We are patient and determined."

Rumsfeld then laid out in considerable detail his philosophy of alliance cooperation in the coming battle: "The legitimacy of our actions does not depend on how many countries support us. More nearly the opposite is true: the legitimacy of other countries’ opinions should be judged by their attitude toward this systemic, uncivilized assault on a free way of life."

Rumsfeld’s attitude regarding allies and alliances did not change for the remainder of his tenure at the Pentagon. Ultimately, in my view, it complicated the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan as well as that in Iraq. It certainly made my job harder over the next two years, as I began to be dispatched around the world to raise troops and funds to support the military efforts in both countries.

For, even as the United States was prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and working to rebuild the country, those activities began to be overshadowed by the prospect of an operation against Iraq.

As Congress returned to Washington from its summer recess in September 2002, it was becoming increasingly clear that the administration was planning to attack Iraq, despite its continued assurances that the United States would not launch a military operation if Saddam complied with demands to open his facilities to U.N. inspectors. That meant that the administration had to continue to fund defense programs without reference to Iraq. It was when Rumsfeld called me into his office to tell me that I would be the coordinator for Afghan reconstruction that I concluded beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter what Saddam, or, for that matter, any other government or the United Nations might do, the United States was definitely going to war with Iraq. There was no other explanation for why Doug Feith would have relinquished the task to which I had just been assigned. The coordinator position was, after all, fundamentally a policy job. It involved ensuring that DoD’s policy objectives, as well as its noncombat related efforts, such as military construction that could also have civilian applications and limited humanitarian assistance, were coordinated not only with Central Command, but with the American embassy team in Kabul and other U.S. government agencies, notably the State Department. It also involved working with State to encourage other countries to contribute to the nonmilitary aspects of Afghan reconstruction.

The decision to appoint me reflected not only the administration’s preoccupation with Iraq but its seeming loss of interest in following through on support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The budget reflected the same failure, perhaps even more so. The total value of American reconstruction aid to Afghanistan in the fiscal 2002 budget that the Congress approved amounted to $942.1 million. That was probably $500 million short of what was needed that year, but analysts might have argued that the country could not absorb more money at that time. The initial fiscal 2003 request, however, totaled just $151 million, with foreign military financing reduced to a laughable $1 million.

Bill Taylor, who was coordinating assistance to Afghanistan for the State Department, was outraged. He made his views clear in an unclassified e-mail distributed widely throughout the government: "Our request for FY 03 is $151 million. This is not serious. … FMF goes from $57 million to $1 million? On this we train the ANA [Afghan National Army] next year?. . . [the] FY 03 OHDACA [overseas humanitarian, disaster, and civic aid-a DOD program] request of $12 million had been reduced to $6 million … can this be right? … Zal [Khalilzad] is here and I just showed him the chart [listing the FY 03 request]. His response was the right one: `You’re not serious.’"

There was no doubt in my mind as to who was responsible for this mess. It could only have been OMB, and within OMB, Associate Director Robin Cleveland, the budget official responsible for Afghan reconstruction. In the event, OMB caved in to State’s protestations: the fiscal 2003 budget totaled $981.8 million, of which $191 million was for foreign military financing. As in the 2002 request, however, these amounts fell far short of what Afghanistan required.

Even more than my appointment as coordinator for Afghanistan, the budget allocated for the supposed aftermath of the Afghan war demonstrated that, as had been the case when the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan, the United States simply could not maintain its focus on an area that no longer had "crisis" written all over it.


It was in late October 2002 that I made my first trip to Afghanistan. I wanted to familiarize myself with the place and with our progress on the ground. As a youngster I had been captivated by James Michener’s Caravans, which takes place in Afghanistan, but never, not even in my wildest fantasies, did I ever expect to set foot there. It proved to be as romantic as Michener had made it seem to an impressionable teenager from Brooklyn.

We met with Hamid Karzai in his threadbare Kabul palace. Karzai, a royal cousin to Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, is a cultured, dignified man whose presence can be felt when he enters a room. By the time I arrived in Afghanistan, he had developed a good working relationship with Karl Eikenberry that went beyond the necessities of relating well to the emissaries of the power that had brought him to office. For a time in 2010, when Eikenberry was serving as ambassador to Afghanistan, relations between the two men appeared to have soured somewhat. But, at least according to Eikenberry, their relationship was back on even keel by early 2011.

Karzai seemed to rely heavily on his finance minister, a former World Bank official named Ashraf Ghani. Small, thin, and fluent in English, Ghani usually began conversations with predictions of doom and gloom. Nonetheless, he was determined to help Karzai create a viable central government by ensuring that Kabul received tax and customs revenues and then distributed them via government ministries. The problem was that the warlords not only controlled the border revenues but held key positions in the central government; there were very few bureaucrats who could make any Afghan ministry function with anything remotely approaching Western, or Ashraf Ghani’s, notion of efficiency.

Ghani needed help. He needed Washington to lean on the warlords. He needed a viable border police to help with customs collection. He needed training for his own bureaucrats and those of other ministries. Most of all, he needed money-to pay civil servants, to disburse services to ordinary Afghans, to finance economic projects. He was not getting much from the United States, certainly not what he thought he should be receiving. Nor was he getting much from others. Many countries had pledged reconstruction assistance at a major donors’ conference in Tokyo in January 2002; few were actually making good on those pledges. The Gulf states were a major source of frustration for Ashraf, and in advance of my visit to the Gulf, which would follow upon the trip to Afghanistan, he wrote the leaders or foreign ministers of five Gulf states, pleading for support of our mission.

While traveling in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, I met with two warlords, together with a leader of the Hazara, or Shia Afghans. The warlords, Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, and Mohammed Atta, a Tajik, had played a major role in the Northern Alliance that had fought the Taliban. Dostum, a bear of a man with a thick black mustache, was as colorful as he was ruthless. He had supported the Soviets and then switched sides to the mujahedin. He tended to "follow the money" and was therefore happy to align himself with the Americans who sought his support against the Taliban. He had his own public relations machine, which sent e-mails to anyone willing to receive them. Dostum was a deputy defense minister but spent most of his time in the north, where his forces collected and kept customs revenues and often battled with Atta’s troops.

Atta was thinner and less talkative. His men and Dostum’s had recently been at war again, although both men insisted that any "skirmishes" were the product of rogue commanders who were disobeying orders. I wondered how long anyone, commander or otherwise, could last without following these men’s orders; all I said, however, following the official talking points that were prepared for me, was that the quarreling was undermining security in the area and needed to stop. Of course, both men assured me it would, though Atta and even Sharif Saidi, the Hazara leader, pointed out that disarmament was "difficult." All three men urged me to find funds for developing the north. While they clearly stood to rake off a percentage of whatever came in, it was just as obvious that if the region were developed, they and their followers would have a greater vested interest in maintaining a quiet status quo. In the meantime, the skirmishing continued after I had returned to Washington. That in a nutshell, summed up Afghanistan: It needed constant monitoring, constant assistance, constant attention. But many of my colleagues had other responsibilities to attend to in Washington, as did I, and so did not pay Afghanistan the attention it required.

This lack of focus on Afghanistan is a truly tragic outcome. All the ingredients were there for nation-building — really state-building, if the language is to be used precisely — to have succeeded there. The international community was virtually unanimous in agreeing that Afghanistan needed to be transformed into a stable state; there was no hostility to the United States on this count. The United States was not alone in stationing forces in the country, and its military "footprint" was sufficiently small that it avoided offending the locals. The United Nations was active in the country, as were nongovernmental organizations — the NGOs. International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were verbally committed to supporting Afghanistan as well. The country now had a fledgling central government whose head had been appointed by a duly convened assembly, or loya jirga, a traditional Afghan decisionmaking body. There were few frontal challenges to the new Afghan regime; the Taliban was in disarray, and al Qaeda was in hiding.

By taking its eye off the ball that was Afghanistan, the administration squandered an opportunity to manage a postconflict environment properly. Instead, the country became the world’s largest producer of illicit drugs and, more ominously, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were able to regroup and, in the case of the Taliban, once again seek control of the country.

The lack of follow-up was not unique to Afghanistan, or for that matter, to Iraq once Saddam was defeated. For far too long, and with far too few exceptions, American policymakers of both parties and all political philosophies have been shackled to their in-boxes. Their focus is on the immediate, the must-do; they devote little time to considering the long-term consequences of their short-term policies or creating mechanisms for dealing with them. The interconnectedness of the international environment, the speed with which information can be transmitted, has only reinforced the American predilection to focus on the here-and-now.

At the same time, any plan for the longer term must of necessity include a plan of implementation. Implementation is something policymakers consistently prefer to leave to others, however, without clarifying who those others might be or how they might obtain the necessary resources to carry out the plan. What Afghanistan required was that the highest levels of the U.S. government focus on implementing their policy objectives. But because the government’s top policymakers were now turned elsewhere, that did not happen.


I came into the Bush administration believing that the United States was terrible at nation building (again, really state building). Events after 2001, during my stint in the Department of Defense, initially led me to conclude that I had been wrong. During the period when I was DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, I openly conceded to my friends and colleagues that events in Afghanistan were disproving my belief that the United States was incapable of nation building.

I hasten to add that I was not simply verbalizing some government-mandated mantra; I continued to feel that way, and write that way, during the first year after my departure from the government. By 2006, however, I began to second-guess my second-guessing of myself. Afghanistan turned increasingly sour, and American benign neglect seemed again to demonstrate that the United States simply did not have the tools, or the sustained determination, or both, to help rejuvenate a nation that has fallen on such hard times.

Nevertheless, I have not entirely reversed myself. It is clear, to me at least, that the United States cannot build nations alone. Yet the United States can certainly make a major contribution toward helping a state get back on its feet if it acts in concert with other states, and if it lets others take the lead in the nation-building effort — as it has done in Bosnia.

As long as the United States remains a superpower with global interests, it will find those interests threatened somewhere in the world. It cannot turn away from those threats; "Fortress America" is an inviting concept that became obsolete at the turn of the twentieth century, as the isolationists of the 1930s discovered by the end of that decade. It is of course impossible to foretell where America’s next war will take place. No one expected to go to war with Saddam Hussein in 1991, just a few years after the United States sided with him in his decade-long conflict with Iran. Amply predicted in intelligence circles though it was, no one in policy circles really expected post-Tito Yugoslavia to break apart. No one expected America to engage in a decade-long (and counting) war in Afghanistan. And not even the most rabid neocons expected that "mission accomplished" would take the better part of a decade to be realized in Iraq. That another war will take place is a certainty, however. And when it comes, whether against a so-called "rogue" state or another major power, the United States will need to be able both to make policy and to implement it.

The fact that policy during much of the Bush administration was made by people whose egos and dreams were outsized even by Washington standards undermined efforts to implement an effective followup to the initial military operations. An endless stream of journalistic accounts has documented the stubborn refusal of leading American actors in the Iraq drama to address the cultural, political, and religious realities that governed Iraqi society. Less well documented but no less important is the pernicious impact of a similar combination of blindness, obstinacy, and illusion regarding the implementation of American policy objectives in Afghanistan.

Real leadership is not only about setting directions. It also has to encompass a management style that can see efforts through to successful completion. In fact, it is not the management style itself that matters, it is the awareness that management matters. The details will not "take care of themselves." It is all well and good to be a Vulcan, or to be a member of some future exclusive crowd of would-be public servants. Someone, however, has to know how to get the job done.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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