Response to a Humbled Vulcan
The conventional wisdom is true: from 2002 to 2006, the United States took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan to focus on Iraq. As a result, we paid a stupendous opportunity cost by failing to rebuilding Afghanistan during those crucial early years. The U.S.’s failure to dedicate sufficient people, money, and attention to Afghanistan ...
The conventional wisdom is true: from 2002 to 2006, the United States took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan to focus on Iraq. As a result, we paid a stupendous opportunity cost by failing to rebuilding Afghanistan during those crucial early years. The U.S.'s failure to dedicate sufficient people, money, and attention to Afghanistan is now well-documented in several books and memoirs.
The conventional wisdom is true: from 2002 to 2006, the United States took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan to focus on Iraq. As a result, we paid a stupendous opportunity cost by failing to rebuilding Afghanistan during those crucial early years. The U.S.’s failure to dedicate sufficient people, money, and attention to Afghanistan is now well-documented in several books and memoirs.
Dov Zakheim’s new book is the latest. My fellow Shadow Government contributor served as Undersecretary of Defense and Comptroller from 2001 to 2004, and he was tasked to be the Department’s coordinator for Afghanistan reconstruction. He writes in his new memoir (see the excerpt here) that Afghanistan "needed constant monitoring, constant assistance, constant attention," but openly admits that because of Iraq and other responsibilities, he and the administration "did not pay Afghanistan the attention it required." That included not giving enough money. Zakheim quotes internal memos from officials aghast at the low level of assistance the United States gave to the world’s most broken country.
None of this is new or revealing — President Bush himself tells a similar story in his own memoir, which I covered in an earlier blog — but it does add some detail to our growing understanding of what went wrong in those early years. For example, Zakheim is right that the U.S. government does a poor job implementing foreign policy regardless of whether it is conservative or liberal policy, that our bureaucracies are poorly designed for reconstruction and stabilization, and that policymakers are overly "shackled to their inboxes," driven by the urgent task rather than the important one. I hope the folks in charge of the war in Libya are paying attention.
Another interesting detail: Zakheim is the second source I have seen to blame the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and specifically Robin Cleveland, associate director for national security programs, for the persistently low levels of funding for the mission in Afghanistan (the other source is Seth Jones’ book, In the Graveyard of Empires). I never worked with Ms. Cleveland and can offer no independent corroboration of the accusation, and I have no interest in a witchhunt. But considering the emerging picture of OMB, she or other former OMB colleagues may want to come forward with their own accounting of OMB’s role in the under-funding of the mission in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006. OMB surely has a reason — maybe they were following orders; they were heeding other budget priorities; they sincerely believed Afghanistan did not require substantial funds, etc. — and we would benefit from hearing their side of the story.
Zakheim, as well as Bush and others who have admitted their failures regarding Afghanistan, should be commended for their humility and honesty. Books by policymakers are almost always attempts at vindication. It is rare to hear them say, in public and on the record, something like this: "nowhere, in my estimation, did [our] deficiencies and flaws accumulate to do more damage than in the case of the war in Afghanistan," as Zakheim writes. He is right.
The heartbreaking thing is that we knew it at the time. Zakheim recounts fruitless efforts from within the bureaucracies to increase attention to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. I first briefed the conventional wisdom to Lieutenant General Dan K. McNeil in the summer of 2002, when he was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He asked me, an analyst in his intelligence support element in Bagram, what the biggest long-term threats to Afghanistan were. The Taliban were on the run, Afghans were welcoming of international forces, and the warlords were willing to cooperate with the new regime (for a price). "A lack of money," I told him, "and a failure of international will." Without commitment and resources, we risked snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
By 2007 the threats had become realities. To his credit, Bush recognized how badly things were going and put the pieces in place to change course. From early 2007 he quadrupled U.S. assistance to the Afghan security forces, doubled the U.S. troop presence, and appointed General Doug Lute (on whose staff I served) as Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan to bring more attention and coherence to the wars.
It wasn’t enough to undo the damage done by five years of neglect, but it was enough to give Obama a fighting chance. The war in Afghanistan is not lost, contrary to the credentialed doomsayers. When the New York Times and The Economist are both reporting good news out of Afghanistan, there is reason to hope (see also this well-researched report from the Institute For the Study of War). The rest depends on how well Obama and his team have learned the lessons of recent history that Zakheim chronicles so well: without a sustained commitment of sufficient resources and attention, hard-won progress can unravel quickly.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2
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