The Afghan war: A failure made in the USA

The US-made mess in Afghanistan has much to do with its failed policies and shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude.

Afghanistan war
US army soldiers fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan on June 12, 2011 [File: Baz Ratner/Reuters]

Last week, the Washington Post published a six-part investigative series on the United States‘ war in Afghanistan, based on thousands of government documents the newspaper procured.

The paper has shone a light on the disjuncture between what has been occurring on the ground in Afghanistan and what successive American governments have been saying about it. It has highlighted the strategic drift that has marked the US engagement with what was once considered the “good war” but is now the war that just will not end.

Most of all, these documents reveal that the failure of Afghanistan is mostly made in the US – something those who have closely observed the conflict knew all along.

Pakistani perfidy, Afghan avarice

Officials quoted in the Washington Post investigation repeatedly blame Pakistan and its partners in Afghanistan for undermining their war effort.

In taking Washington’s dollars but supporting its opponents, Pakistan certainly played a double-game, one whose effects were especially felt in the mid-2000s, when the Taliban was on the defensive. Pakistani aid and sanctuary ensured that the Taliban would have the space to regroup physically, politically, militarily, and organisationally.

Washington insiders, while correct in their descriptions of Pakistan’s policies as duplicitous, are prone to exaggerating their implications as the most important factor in the war. Even if Islamabad had done exactly what Washington wanted, US forces would still have strained to pacify a rural-based insurgency with as few troops as the Bush administration had in Afghanistan.

For most of Bush’s presidency, the US had 10,000-20,000 troops in Afghanistan. This was a paltry commitment when juxtaposed with the administration’s stated goals. After all, the US had roughly 150,000 troops in Iraq during Bush’s second term and, in more direct comparison, the Soviets had more than 100,000 soldiers occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Furthermore, this relatively light American presence in Afghanistan was aimed not just at fighting but also building hospitals and schools, digging irrigation canals, directing traffic, and cooking.

What about the lack of a credible, popular, and competent ally on the ground? From the perspective of many officials, the roots of US failure in Afghanistan lie exactly there – within Afghan society. There are two main variants of this argument.

First, the corruption of Hamid Karzai, the warlordism of his governor allies, and the wider kleptocratic system that Americans found themselves against never gave the occupation a chance. Widespread corruption undoubtedly played an important role in delegitimising the governments the US set up in Kabul – first Karzai’s and then Ghani’s.

But Washington made its own bed on this score: it chose to centralise power in Kabul despite Afghanistan’s political history being marked by relatively autonomous regions and provinces, and it chose to do so in the person of Hamid Karzai. It also chose to solve problems in Afghanistan by throwing money at it.

As the New York Times sensationally reported in 2013, American fingerprints could be found all over Karzai’s behaviour. The CIA, invoking B-grade action movies, was delivering duffel bags of cash to Karzai’s office for distribution to his allies. The Obama administration also looked the other way as Karzai ballot-stuffed his way to re-election in 2009.

Second, alongside the major problem of corruption, US officials considered Afghans too uneducated, too undisciplined, and essentially too backward to mould into a fighting force worthy of a sovereign state. According to the Washington Post, interviewed sources “depicted the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated, poorly trained, corrupt and riddled with deserters and infiltrators”.

It is true that the Afghan rank and file suffered from illiteracy and observed cultural mores very different from what GI Joes and Janes were accustomed to. Nonetheless, it hardly seems fair to blame Afghan recruits if they could not read aircraft repair manuals or if they confused urinals for drinking fountains, as some American officers have claimed.

The Afghan forces’ petty corruption or their attacks on coalition troops were admittedly a much bigger problem. But even here, it stretches credulity that smuggled fuel and around 150 casualties can defeat a hegemonic superpower. Rather, there were bigger forces at play. 

American failure

Pakistan may have been an unhelpful ally and Afghanistan may have been an unruly client – pesky foreigners with their own world views, agendas, and customs – but the central causes of American failure in Afghanistan were located in the US. Most importantly, the George W Bush administration, whose neoconservative foreign policy was dictated by the triumvirate of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz, made two fateful choices that doomed the US effort.

First, the decision to invade Afghanistan was more an emotional response aimed at satisfying the collective psychological need for revenge for the 9/11 attacks than a result of careful strategic consideration. As one writer puts it, American decision-making in the aftermath of 9/11 seemed rooted in “a kind of irrational, all-encompassing, post-traumatic breakdown”.

Understandably, the US leadership felt it needed to engineer a military response to the gruesome attacks of 9/11. But in the autumn of 2001, the Bush administration did not adequately think through the precise aims of military action in Afghanistan.

Officially, the war that began in October 2001 was aimed at eliminating al-Qaeda as a threat. As a corollary, this meant a government in Kabul that would deny that terrorist organisation sanctuary. Could the Taliban be such a government? The US seemed to believe that because Taliban leader Mullah Omar had not taken a sterner line against al-Qaeda during the late 1990s, that he could not be relied upon to do so post-2001.

This was a reasonable but tragically flawed line of thinking. It was reasonable because the US had made several overtures to the Taliban before 9/11 to abandon Osama bin Laden and force him out of the country, most likely back to Saudi Arabia, where he would face that regime’s particular form of justice.

On the other hand, it is instructive that the Washington Post series quotes national security leaders like Jeffrey Eggers, diplomatic officials like Zalmay Khalilzad, and academic experts like Barnett Rubin to exactly that effect: the US could indeed have reached a deal with the Taliban had it adopted a more accommodationist course.

And while it was one thing to avoid talks with the Taliban, the Bush administration went much further, rejecting agreements that the Afghan government itself struck with the Taliban in 2001 and 2004 that conceivably could have ended major combat 15 years ago.

Simply put, the Bush administration failed to weld negotiations to its military strategy. About five years later, President Barack Obama’s administration would repeat the same mistake of not contemplating negotiations seriously enough.

Rubin, who worked under Secretary Hillary Clinton at the State Department, argues that the Obama administration’s reluctance to reach out to the Taliban was a product of her impending presidential run, and the attendant need to demonstrate her militaristic bona fides to an electorate suspicious of women’s perceived “softness” on national security.

In addition, Obama’s timeline for withdrawal of US forces, almost universally panned in the documents, was similarly born of domestic political calculations, since he wanted his 2012 re-election campaign to be inoculated against any backlash to his 2009 troop “surge”.

Aside from these major errors, Obama’s exclusive focus on al-Qaeda was also anachronistic – such a strategy might have worked in 2001, but by the 2010s, the Americans were facing a different war than the one they started with.

The ‘side war’

Just as fateful as the confusion over the mission in Afghanistan, and the degree to which the Taliban was to be designated an enemy with whom negotiation was possible, was the decision to invade Iraq.

In general, the Beltway does not like to talk much about the Iraq war when it comes to its failures in Afghanistan because it was an entirely unforced error that cannot be laid at the feet of conniving Pakistani generals, corrupt Afghan elites, thuggish warlords, Islamist extremists, backstabbing soldiers, or buffoonish police.

The Washington Post’s series only briefly delves into the question of Iraq, but the tranche of documents it released paint a bigger, and uniform, picture: Iraq represented a severe diversion.

In the documents it released, James Dobbins, a diplomat and special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan during 2013-14, is quoted as saying. “First, you know, sort of just invade one country at a time.” He explains that until roughly 2005, Iraq took attention away from Afghanistan; after that point, it began to take resources too.

Echoing Dobbins, Douglas Lute, the White House “Czar” for Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013, said that the Bush administration’s “attention would break down to about 85 percent on Iraq and 15 percent on Afghanistan, or maybe even 90 percent attention on Iraq and 10 percent attention on Afghanistan”.

David Richards, a British general who led NATO in 2006 and 2007, stated plainly: “The US was sending the best minds and resources to Iraq.” Most ominously, at the time that the Taliban was militarily resurgent in the mid-2000s, the Bush administration was pushing NATO to take the lead because “the US had too much on their plates”.

The idea that the US should have fought one war at a time is well-taken, and the level of self-criticism displayed in these documents is laudable. Nevertheless, the critiques of the Iraq war are striking for not going nearly far enough.

The basic premise seems to be that the biggest problem with invading Iraq was that it diverted resources for war-fighting. Conspicuous by its absence, at least in these documents, is any sense of the regional and global implications of an aggressive war where the US invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and that had not threatened it.

These included the loss in sympathy, soft power, and political capital the world over, in many cases most sharply in NATO countries. In addition, the slogan that the US is at war with Islam – popular with both Islamists and Trumpist Republicans – became much harder to debunk.

Most significantly, the documents betray no collective reckoning with why the Iraq war was fought. The Bush administration attacked Iraq because it believed that merely attacking Afghanistan would not sufficiently demonstrate the might of its military and the toughness of its resolve to the rest of the world.

Indeed, rather than the “good war” monicker the Afghanistan conflict has been cloaked with since its inception, it was ironically the “not good enough” war. A bigger bang was needed to show the US meant business.

Both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq stemmed from a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude, one especially prevalent among neocons but shared by a significant cross-section of the “respectable” foreign policy establishment. Such a cavalier approach to the use of deadly force permeates American behaviour among citizens, between citizens and the police, as well as between the military and other states, raising questions about US society beyond the ambit of foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.