Over and Out in Afghanistan?

When the U.S. first engaged in Afghanistan, I was optimistic.  I wrote one of the very first essays arguing that if the US were to fight in Afghanistan, we would NOT get bogged down like the Russians.  After all, we were going in to overthrow a fiercely unpopular regime (the Taliban), we had local allies (the Northern Alliance), and unlike the Russians, US forces were not going to face an enemy given safe refuge and support from across the border in Pakistan.

At first (2001-2003), I think I was proved right.  The US supported Northern Alliance quickly rolled the Taliban out of not only Kabul and Kandahar but practically out of the whole country, forcing them into mountain redoubts in the Pakistani/Afghan border region.  The new government led by Karzai won a popular election, and ISAF forces in Kabul were ready to help provide order and economic assistance for the new regime.  It seemed that the US could provide crucial help for a Muslim country and win back the war of opinion against bin Laden and his followers.

But then the mistakes began.  Number 1: instead of using ISAF to help the central government gain control of the country as a whole, it was confined to Kabul; this allowed corrupt warlords to entrench themselves in local fiefdoms across the country.   Number 2: instead of focusing on gaining a good outcome in Afghanistan, we shifted vital resources and attention to Iraq, creating both a losing situation in Afghanistan and an even bigger mess in Iraq.

By 2008, when attention returned to Afghanistan, the US effort was heavily compromised.   Pakistan — which had with much effort declared itself fully in support of the US effort in 2001 — had already begun to hedge it bets, allowing, if not actively supporting, safe havens for Taliban fighters in its border regions, and allowing, if not actively supporting, bin Laden to hide near its own military academy.  

Local warlords had undermined the legitimacy and authority of the Karzai regime in Kabul, and allowed the Taliban to filter back into the country.  The Karzai regime itself was becoming a byword for corruption.

I recall attending a presentation by the US army core of engineers a few years ago, in which the morning session talked of the importance of not undertaking projects in areas that were not secure, because the projects could not be maintained or protected.  Then the afternoon presented a list of projects the core was undertaking in Afghanistan — about half of which were in areas that were not secure!  Why was the US doing this, I asked?  Because the projects were on a wish list presented by the Afghan government, and we had a responsibility to respond to our allies.

Of course, the Afghan government didn’t care if the projects were safe or not, successful or not — for them, every US project was an additional opportunity to skim funds and exact payments.  If the projects were not successful in the long run, no matter — in the meantime millions would be spent in the country and much of it secured in overseas investments by the ruling elite.  The US winked at this figuring they were buying loyalty, at least; in fact we were being played.

In 2009, the bigges mistake of all was made, when we allowed the corrupt Karzai regime to steal and pack a horrendous national election, thereby forfeiting all pretense that we were aiming to bring democracy to the country, and giving up all hopes of having a popular, legitimate ruler to leave in charge as the US effort wound down.

By 2010, after nearly a decade of fighting in which we had made so many mistakes as to forfeit every initial advantage, and by which time our (and NATO) troops were exhausted from extended and multiple deployments and a fight that seemed to no longer have any purpose, things began to fall apart even with in the NATO effort.  Troops no longer saw any purpose except defending themselves and avenging their fallen comrades.

The result was a series of actions in the last month, understandable perhaps in the framework of an exhausting war for an illegitimate government with a foe getting support from our supposed allies, that have ruined whatever chance the US might have had to do good in Afghanistan.  From urinating on dead Pashtun rebels, to burning Korans, to multiple cases of US soldiers murdering innocent civilians, including women and children, inside their own homes, the actions of allied forces have sent a clear message: we care nothing for you or your people; we are here to fight and kill, that is all.  If there was ever a case of complete collapse of the policy of winning civilian support — supposedly a core tenet of Counter-Insurgency — this is it.

So what can be done now?  Nothing much, except conduct as safe an exit as possible, and try to bring a regional agreement, including Pakistan and Iran, to try to keep peace in the country as NATO forces depart.  There is a real risk of renewed civil war in Afghanistan, as the Taliban seeks to reconquer the country in the name of Pashtun nationalism, while the Uzbek/Tajik and Hazari regions seek to remain under control of their own regional minorities.  Unless the Pakistanis and Iranians can broker some kind of deal among the Afghan factions, there is no hope for peace when NATO troops leave, and no hope they can be effective while they remain.

Already, thousands upon thousands are leaving the country, anticipating chaos when NATO leaves, many of them the skilled business and professional classes the country needs.

This will go down as a tragedy, another Vietnam — and like Vietnam, it was a totally unnecessary tragedy, brought about by US hubris and determination to back a corrupt and unpopular local leader until our troops lost their morale and our allies lost their faith in us.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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