Where We Went Wrong in Afghanistan

Has it all been in vain?

The United States is currently fighting a war it needn’t have fought. During the first few years after it launched Operation Enduring Freedom exactly a decade ago, al-Qaeda was on the run and Bin Laden was in hiding, as was the Taliban. No one spoke of the Haqqani network. Refugees returned to Afghanistan by the millions, small shops and businesses were starting up, the drug trade was nearly dormant and American civilians did not have to wear body armor when they visited the country.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration, and the Office of Management and Budget in particular, seriously underfunded the reconstruction of Afghanistan in those first few years. Less than a year after the American attack on the Taliban, Iraq was dominating the thoughts and actions of most American policy makers. Afghanistan was relegated to a distant second place in Washington’s priorities. After nearly seven years of neglect, the United States found itself at war again, with a rejuvenated Taliban that had regrouped in neighboring Pakistan. The ousting of Pervez Musharraf complicated matters even more. Pakistan’s previously inconsistent policy toward the Taliban was further compounded by the weakness of the new civilian government, the ambivalence of the military, and the determination of the ISI to dominate Afghan affairs and to support the increasingly active Haqqani network based in Miram Shah. And Washington became ever more disenchanted with the man it had lionized since 2001; President Hamid Karzai was now portrayed as mercurial at best, bipolar at worst.

Shortly after taking office, President Obama responded to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by increasing American forces deployed there. He announced a further increase, a “surge,” in December 2009, but undermined his plan by simultaneously announcing that the United States would begin to withdraw its forces by July 2011 (while his senior aides informed the press that he planned to withdraw most American troops by 2013). His message, followed by a June 2011 speech announcing the return of all surged forces by September 2012 and a “complete process of transition” by 2014, led all the regional players to recalculate their positions. Karzai became even more difficult for Americans to work with. The Pakistanis intensified their support for the Haqqani group. The rush to exit the country, which had already begun with announcements by the Netherlands and Canada that they would be withdrawing their forces, threatened to turn into a stampede.

Even the appointment of General David Petraeus, the hero of the Iraqi surge, to lead American troops and the International Security Assistance Force in July 2010 could not offset the impact of Obama’s withdrawal announcement; by the time Petraeus returned to the United States a year later, the Taliban still controlled parts of Afghanistan and the Haqqani network was as strong as it had ever been. Indeed, the insurgents, fueled by drug money and the proceeds of shakedowns of American subcontractors, became ever more daring, as highlighted by their attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in September 2011.

Despite the damage that the withdrawal announcement caused, a change in strategy, first begun by General Stanley McChrystal before he was sacked in June 2010, has definitely decimated the Taliban leadership. The killing of Bin Laden was a serious blow to al-Qaeda. Drone attacks on top Taliban and Haqqani personnel have disrupted the operations of both groups. And these attacks continue daily, despite protests—which may be pro forma—by the Pakistanis. At the same time, Washington has begun to rely more heavily on its northern supply route via Russia and its former Central Asian republics, thereby creating a hedge against Pakistan’s on-again, off-again policy related to American supplies crossing its territory.

Several factors will determine Washington’s ability to prevent the insurgents from launching a full-scale civil war—or, worse still, taking control of the central government. To begin with, the withdrawal of forces must not include those training the Afghan security forces, Special Operations units, and forces supporting the activities of Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are scattered around the country. In addition, the pace of drone attacks should be maintained at current levels, and terrorists should be denied a safe haven in Pakistan.

Finally, reconstruction efforts should not be dropped, though they should be modified to ensure that programs launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other U.S. agencies are both realistic and sustainable. Monies should not be spent on contractor projects in high-risk areas, nor should subcontractors be so unsupervised that they can pay protection money to insurgents. The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan has recommended a series of actions by the executive and legislative branches to ensure that American taxpayers get their money’s worth and that Afghans truly benefit from reconstruction projects. Both branches of government should implement these recommendations at the earliest possible time.

The war in Afghanistan was launched in retaliation for a heinous crime committed by terrorists under the protection of that country’s government. It has lasted a very long time—longer than any other American conflict. Thus, every effort should be made to ensure that when it ends, the blood of American men and women, and the treasure that taxpayers have heaped on that country, will not have been expended in vain.

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