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The Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War
From Tora Bora to wartime fatigue, the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan was just one failed endeavor after another.
America’s long war in Afghanistan isn’t likely to end well, and the American people seem to know it. Despite a wholly predictable effort to portray the war as an American victory, the United States isn’t going to defeat the Taliban between now and the scheduled departure of most U.S. troops later this year. Meanwhile, relations between the United States and the Karzai government are going from bad to worse. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not only refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow the United States to leave a residual force in country, he is also making increasingly strident accusations that the United States is to blame for recent civilian deaths.
This depressing outcome is not what most Americans expected following the rapid toppling of the Taliban back in 2001. It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience, if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought there. In that spirit, here is a list of the top 10 mistakes made in America’s Afghan War.
1. Trying to Go It Alone
After 9/11, America’s NATO allies invoked the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty and offered to help the United States go after the Taliban and al Qaeda. Convinced that the job would be easy and that allies would simply make things harder, the Rumsfeld Pentagon responded with a brusque "No, thanks." Instead of making Afghanistan a collective project from the start, the Bush administration wanted to show it could do the job all by itself, with an assist from the Afghan Northern Alliance. That decision seemed justified when the Taliban fell quickly, but when Bush & Co. marched off to Iraq (see below), there was hardly anybody left to keep the Taliban from coming back. By the time NATO got involved big-time, a new civil war was underway and the best opportunity to build a stable Afghanistan had been squandered.
2. Blowing It at Tora Bora
The United States invaded Afghanistan for one reason: to get Osama bin Laden and as many of his followers as possible. Unfortunately, poor coordination with local Afghan forces and a reluctance to commit sufficient U.S. troops at the Battle of Tora Bora allowed bin Laden to escape into Pakistan, where he remained at large for another eight years. Had we caught him then and there, al Qaeda might have been dealt a fatal blow and the United States could have declared victory in the "war on terror" instead of watching al Qaeda morph into a global franchise. Yet despite this costly failure, the U.S. commander at Tora Bora — Army Gen. Tommy Franks — was later chosen to command the invasion of Iraq.
3. The Afghan Constitution
The Bonn Agreement in December 2001 established an interim government for post-Taliban Afghanistan and was, in many ways, an impressive diplomatic achievement. Unfortunately, the Constitution adopted in 2004 was an ill-conceived misstep. It created a highly centralized state that ignored Afghan traditions of local autonomy and gave the president too much formal power. The new government was supposed to run the entire country from Kabul and appoint all the key local officials, but the Karzai regime lacked enough competent civil servants and the new structure created irresistible opportunities for patronage and corruption. Moreover, the Afghan economy could not support an elaborate governmental structure or large security forces, which made the fledgling Afghan state permanently dependent on outside support from the start.
4. The Detour Into Iraq
The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq was not just a disaster for Iraq and for the United States, it also diverted military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan and allowed the Taliban to regroup and resume the war. Sadly, we will never know what might have happened had the United States and NATO kept their eyes on the ball back in 2003.
5. The 2009 Surge
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama burnished his national security street cred by declaring that he was going to end the war in Iraq so that he could focus on the "real war" in Afghanistan. He then succumbed to military pressure and sent additional U.S. troops, starting with 17,000 shortly after taking office and adding another 30,000 in the fall of 2009. But the decision to escalate was fatally flawed, because the Taliban still had sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and were never going to be defeated by military force alone. To succeed, the surge would have had to be far larger and much longer in duration, and Afghanistan simply wasn’t worth that level of effort. The surge also led to a sharp uptick in Afghan and American casualties, which gradually undermined support for the war back home.
6. Setting a Time Limit
The mistaken decision to escalate was compounded by a second error: Obama made it clear from the start that the surge would be a temporary measure and gave the Taliban a pretty good idea when the United States would begin to get out. As critics noted at the time, telling your adversary exactly when you were going to quit was hardly the best way to persuade them to give up the fight. Instead, it told the enemy exactly how long they needed to hang on in order to wait us out.
7. Downgrading Diplomacy
Ending the war and building a functioning Afghan government required a reconciliation process that would integrate the more moderate elements of the Taliban back into the Afghan political community. Unfortunately, the United States didn’t get serious about a peace process until it was too late. As U.S. special envoy James Dobbins acknowledged last year, "it was probably a mistake to delay a serious effort at reconciliation until 2011." Washington should have pushed hard for serious discussions while the surge was at its peak, instead of waiting until its role (and therefore its leverage) was declining. The United States also failed to engage regional powers that might have helped put together a stabilization deal, in part because it wasn’t even talking to some of them (e.g., Iran).
8. Losing Public Support
When the Taliban refused to give up bin Laden, the United States had no choice but to go after the man who had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. The American public signed up for that war with enthusiasm, but not to an open-ended effort to transform an impoverished, land-locked, and ethnically divided Muslim country that had never been a vital U.S. strategic interest before. And neither Bush nor Obama ever managed to persuade them that the war was worth the cost, mostly because the American people aren’t completely gullible. By 2008, the war was costing the American taxpayers an amount several times larger than Afghanistan’s entire GDP, and neither Bush nor Obama could come up with a convincing rationale for continuing to pour money and lives into distant strategic backwater.
To be sure, Obama tried to justify the war as necessary to prevent al Qaeda from establishing a "safe haven" again, but al Qaeda already had better havens by 2009 and was barely in Afghanistan by that point. Moreover, a long and costly war against the Taliban was increasingly a distraction from the broader campaign against al Qaeda itself.
Bottom line: the American people will support a war when vital interests are at stake and there is a plausible theory of victory, but by 2009, neither of those conditions had been met.
9. Failure to Manage Unruly Allies
Winning the war in Afghanistan depended on getting at least two foreign governments to play ball. The first was the Afghan government itself, which was corrupt, inefficient, and increasingly unwilling to listen to well-intentioned U.S. advice. The second was Pakistan, which continued to play footsie with the Taliban and sometimes put roadblocks (literal ones) in the way of the U.S. military. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders never fully appreciated that the war could not be won if we didn’t get more cooperation from these supposed allies, and that we wouldn’t get that support as long as they were convinced that Washington would never call their bluff. It’s a sad but familiar story: a once-powerful patron becomes too strongly committed to a weak client with its own agenda, that client extracts many concessions by threatening to collapse or by telling us one thing while doing another.
10. Strategic Contradictions
Finally, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was bedeviled by strategic contradictions that were never fully recognized or resolved. Although many American soldiers fought with skill and heroism, achieving our stated war aims was an uphill battle from the get-go.
For starters, the United States and NATO couldn’t win without a much larger investment of resources over a much longer period, but it just wasn’t worth that level of investment. And for all the talk about COIN, Army Field Manual 3-24, and supposedly brilliant commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Army was never designed for or adept at this kind of operation and isn’t likely to get much better at it with practice. And finally, building a new Afghan state and fighting a counterinsurgency war required outsiders to pour billions of dollars into an impoverished country, but the flood of poorly managed money merely fueled corruption and ensured that much of the aid money was wasted.
No one should take any pleasure in contemplating these (and other) mistakes, especially when one considers how long the United States fought there and how shallow its learning curve was. One at least hopes that some larger lessons have been learned, and that U.S. presidents will be a lot warier of this sort of quagmire in the future. Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2011: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have ‘his head examined.’"