Taliban 2.0

The frightening implications of failure in Afghanistan.

The situation in Iraq improved significantly last year. Conversely, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated markedly after I left the Pentagon in 2004. At the beginning of 2011 the Taliban still controlled significant swathes of the country; the Haqqani network, which had not been a factor during my time in the Administration, was active in the Pushtun areas; while al Qaeda, though left with a minimal presence in Afghanistan, had not yet been defeated. Some elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, continued to support the Taliban, whose leaders, as well as some of al Qaeda’s, still operated from safe havens in northwest Pakistan, especially in the Tribal Areas’ region of North Waziristan. The Pakistani military’s arrest in the late winter of 2010 of several members of the Taliban leadership, at first thought by some to indicate a significant shift in Pakistani official thinking, turned out to be something quite different: The Pakistanis arrested the more moderate members of the group to better control their negotiating inclinations and flexibility, while maintaining implicit protection of the rest. Meanwhile, terrorist activity in Pakistan itself continued to threaten to destabilize that country.

With the threat to American forces in Iraq seemingly diminishing, and combat forces in the process of withdrawal, U.S. attention has turned again to Afghanistan. The country now holds center stage as it did from late 2001 into mid-2002. Legislators, pundits, and analysts once again are falling over each other to visit and to offer their own “solutions” to its many difficulties. That is what they did in the early years of the war before Iraq became the “in” place to visit for photo-ops with troops and their commanders. But while Afghanistan is once again the challenge du jour, whether security in Iraq will continue to improve is unknown. It is still not clear as of this writing if the March 2010 elections and the formation of a new government at the end of December 2010 will lead to more or less political stability—for democratic elections where there are few democrats, and a great deal of social heterogeneity, can make intercommunal relations worse, not better. If democracy means a willingness to tolerate the views of minorities and accept orderly transfers of power, Iraq has given only minimal indication that it is anything close to becoming a democracy. Legislatures and elections alone do not make democracies; the Soviet Union, after all, had both.

It is even possible that, perhaps after the Americans begin a major withdrawal, things will deteriorate dramatically. At some point the various factions that have lived together uneasily since Britain created the country that is now Iraq after World War I could come to loggerheads again. Either a full-scale civil war would break out—with Iraqi Kurdistan probably strong enough to go it alone, if Turkey and Iran permit it to do so—or a new strongman would arise to unite the country, as Saddam and his predecessors did. That strongman could well have emerged in 2003–04, if Washington had not been consumed by fantasies about democracy. I am convinced that there was no plan for long-term reconstruction because “long term” was never Donald Rumsfeld’s intention, and the president gave Defense the lead on Iraq. Rumsfeld never spoke about democracy; he spoke about getting rid of Saddam. It is too bad that the secretary got more than he bargained for; the United States and Iraq have both paid a truly heavy price for the occupation of Iraq that the United States stumbled into out of a perhaps unlikely combination of hubris and indecision.

I have often wondered whether the administration needed to rush to war with Iraq—with the consequent loss of focus on Afghanistan—and whether its haste to do so was prompted in no small part by a subliminal fear that the president would not be reelected in 2004. After all, he had lost the popular vote and attained office only as a result of a Supreme Court decision; his reelection was far from assured. Delaying the invasion of Iraq by two years might have enabled Washington to win more support for its cause in the United Nations, since Saddam would certainly have continued to stonewall the UN weapons inspectors. Alternately, by waiting until 2005, the fact that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction might have been made clear to all. In any event, a two-year delay would have enabled American policymakers, and those of their allies, to concentrate on Afghanistan, to pour more resources into that country, and perhaps to have finished off the Taliban and al Qaeda once and for all. Such a delay would probably have also meant that Doug Feith, rather than me, would have been the under secretary taking the lead on Afghan reconstruction. But no matter, the job was by all rights his anyway.

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