An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?

We asked everyone from an ex-president of Pakistan to a former Afghan spy chief to weigh in.

By , the Europe editor at Foreign Policy from 2015-2017.



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     


Previous: Frederick W. Kagan on leaving in 2014

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 Pakistan”).

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

The 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 international terrorism.

Its 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

I 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.

Following 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.

But 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.”

But 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.

Next: Seth G. Jones on allowing a sanctuary in Pakistan

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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 Karachi.

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.

Next: Amrullah Saleh on believing Pakistan could change


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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 winning?

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 insurgency.

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 foreign threats.

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 Afghans?

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 enablers.

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 forces.

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 influence.”

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 international officials.

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.

U.S. decision-makers 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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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 to Washington.

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 neighboring countries.

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 together.

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


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 South Asia.

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 operations possible.

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


Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer was the Europe editor at Foreign Policy from 2015-2017. Twitter: @APQW

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