What Went Wrong in Afghanistan — and How to Make It Right
By Peter Tomsen
Locked and loaded: Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, January 2014. (Aref Karimi / Getty)
In the concluding pages of his fascinating memoir, War Comes to Garmser, Carter Malkasian, a Pashto-speaking U.S. diplomat who was stationed in a volatile region of Afghanistan in 2009–11, voices a fear shared by many of the Westerners who have participated in the Afghan war during the past 13 years: “The most frustrating thing about leaving Garmser in July 2011 and now watching it from afar is that I cannot be certain that the [Afghan] government will be able to stand on its own. … The British and the Marines had put the government in a better position to survive than it had enjoyed in the past. What they had not done was create a situation in which the government was sure to win future battles against Taliban [fighters] coming out of Pakistan.”
Malkasian’s frustration is understandable. Over the past 13 years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s central government and many of the people Karzai has appointed as regional governors have proved inept and corrupt, alienating ordinary Afghans in rural areas, many of whom have come to see the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. Karzai’s time as president will soon come to an end, but Karzai is not going quietly. His efforts to manipulate the results of the elections held this past summer to choose his successor — and to ensure that he himself will retain significant influence even once he leaves office — have cast a pall over a democratic transfer of power that might otherwise have helped stabilize the country. The massive fraud that marred the election (and in which Karzai was almost certainly complicit) aided the Taliban’s cause and endangered the country’s unity by reigniting the same regional and ethnic tensions that fueled the civil war of the 1990s.
The United States also deserves some share of the blame. A cornerstone of contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine is the idea that outside actors must avoid the temptation to take direct control of a friendly country’s military and governing responsibilities and should instead build up its institutional capabilities. But the United States ignored that axiom in Afghanistan, making many of the same mistakes that plagued the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. For the past decade, U.S. generals have dominated the military effort against the insurgency. Washington has chosen Afghanistan’s leaders. Americans have conceived, planned, financed, and overseen economic projects in which Afghans have played only supporting roles. And yet there has never been a possibility that the United States and its allies could win the war against the Taliban. Only Afghans themselves can do that.
The Bush administration never truly accepted that basic premise. And neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration fully grasped the true depth of Pakistan’s duplicity; the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been, in no small part, a war against Washington’s putative partners in Islamabad, who have covertly propped up the Taliban insurgency to suit their own purposes. In late 2009, the Obama administration wisely moved to “Afghanize” the war, putting Afghans in charge of defending their own country by increasing the number of U.S. troops but gradually shifting them to a supporting role, allowing the largely U.S.-financed Afghan security forces, which now boast 340,000 soldiers and police officers, to take the lead in combat operations. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has yet to confront, much less resolve, the dilemma posed by Pakistan’s two-faced strategy.
Thanks in part to the flawed policies that have flowed from Washington’s misapprehensions, the new Afghan government that emerged from the contested presidential election will face long odds in its effort to hold off the Taliban and counter Pakistani meddling. For the Afghan state to win its war against the Taliban and the group’s patrons in Pakistan, it will need the United States and NATO to sustain their support. Ultimately, however, success in Afghanistan will depend on internal Afghan and geopolitical developments that the United States and its allies cannot control: the ability of moderate Afghan tribal and ethnic groups (who together represent a majority of the country’s population) to unite behind a representative, competent, reform-minded leadership; a fundamental shift in Pakistani policy away from destabilizing Afghanistan; and diplomatic cooperation among external powers, including China and India, to restore Afghanistan’s classic buffer role in the region.
Malkasian’s book and two other recent books on the war in Afghanistan — Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy and Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living — help reveal why those outcomes remain uncertain, and even unlikely. Taken together, these books explain how it can be that more than 13 years after 9/11, the Afghan war is far from over, even if Washington insists that the U.S. war in Afghanistan will soon come to an end.
EYE OFF THE BALL
War Comes to Garmser primarily deals with Malkasian’s experiences applying counterinsurgency doctrine in a violent, remote district in Helmand Province, and it should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding the complex nature of the tribal and village-level politics that have always played a major role in determining the course of events in Afghanistan. But Malkasian also offers an excellent history of the politics and planning of the U.S.-led war, paying particular attention to strategic failures in the war’s early years. Malkasian argues that if the Bush administration had not diverted its attention to the invasion of Iraq, the United States could have focused more on strengthening the Afghan state and could have “built an Afghan army larger than 70,000 soldiers” that would have been able to “handle the Taliban,” which were weak and disorganized during the early phases of the U.S.-led invasion. Indeed, in 2002, a Pentagon-led interagency team put forward a detailed proposal along those lines, only to see Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quash its recommendations.
The consequences of that decision were felt almost immediately. The Taliban regrouped in Pakistan, where the Pakistani army’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, readied its Afghan proxies for a counterattack. In 2005, the ISI deployed the revamped Taliban forces to Afghanistan, along with two other proxies, the al Qaeda–linked Haqqani network and the group of militants led by the veteran mujahideen fighter and longtime ISI pawn Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Thousands of fighters crossed the border into Afghanistan and found no Afghan army to resist them — only self-serving warlords paid by the CIA and the U.S. military. By that point, with the Iraq war in full swing, U.S. troops in Afghanistan numbered only 10,800 and were scarcely present along the 1,500-mile Afghan-Pakistani border.
In the years that followed, the Bush and Obama administrations both tried to fill the security vacuum with more U.S. forces, futilely chasing the steadily rising number of Taliban fighters as the group expanded its presence into every region of Afghanistan. By the end of George W. Bush’s tenure, there were roughly 40,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan; Barack Obama’s “surge” increased that number to around 100,000 by 2011. In this manner, Washington adopted the same strategy that had failed the Soviet Union during the 1980s: casting the Afghan army in a supporting role in a military effort led by outsiders, rather than playing a supporting role in an Afghan-led campaign.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, granted the United States and NATO the use of supply corridors through his country, cleverly locking the Western alliance into a logistical dependency on Pakistan. This meant that both sides in the war in Afghanistan relied on Pakistan: the ISI oversaw Taliban bases and recruiting networks inside Pakistan, and the Western alliance could not get its supplies to the battlefield without Pakistan’s acquiescence.
KNOW THY ENEMY
The perversity of this situation is well chronicled in Carlotta Gall’s superb book,The Wrong Enemy. Gall, a reporter for The New York Times, spent 13 years covering Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a lifelong connection to the region: her father, Sandy Gall, is a well-known British journalist who himself spent a good portion of his career covering Afghanistan. Her deep knowledge of the region lends authority to the basic argument her book makes about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which might sound reductive if it came from a less well-informed source: “Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.”
Gall documents the Pakistani army’s double game: public support and private official assurances that Pakistan is allied with the United States and NATO, but clandestine ISI support for radical Islamist terrorism — and not just in Afghanistan. She persuasively rejects the official U.S. claim that no “smoking gun” exists that would prove that high-level Pakistani military officials were aware that Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan — a stone’s throw from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, no less — for years before U.S. Special Forces killed him there in 2011. Citing an “inside source,” Gall writes that “the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle the al Qaeda leader. It was operated independently, headed by an officer who made his own decisions. He did not have to pass things by a superior. . . . What he did was of course wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI. . . . But the top bosses knew about the desk, I was told.”
Gall charges that U.S. officials and politicians, when confronted with Pakistani double-dealing, have been “mealymouthed, pleading that they [have] no leverage over Pakistan.” As for why billions of dollars in unconditional U.S. military and economic aid have not persuaded Islamabad to change course, Gall reasons that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — and the fear of what might happen to it if the Pakistani security establishment lost power or influence — deters U.S. officials from applying more pressure. Regrettably, however, Gall does not follow up her condemnation of Washington’s flawed approach to Pakistan with any specific policy recommendations.
“WHAT KIND OF BUSINESS IS THIS?”
Although Gall reports on a wide swath of society in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, her most important sources are insiders and officials in Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul. And although Malkasian’s book focuses heavily on the Afghans in rural Helmand Province, Malkasian was a U.S. official during his time there, and his analysis reflects that position. In that respect, Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living offers an interesting alternative to those two accounts. Gopal focuses more on the stories of Afghans contending with the shifting currents of the brutal war — including Taliban leaders and fighters in militant-controlled areas, to whom Gopal, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, managed to gain access.
Just as Malkasian and Gall do, Gopal emphasizes the importance of Pakistani influence on the Taliban. One of the main characters he profiles is a Taliban commander named Akbar Gul. At one point, Gul was summoned to Pakistan for a meeting with an ISI officer to resolve a dispute between Gul and another Taliban leader. When the ISI man, in his “perfectly tailored” shalwar kameez, demands that Gul justify his actions, the Taliban commander chafes at the Pakistani’s arrogance: “Who was he, hundreds of miles from the battlefield, to question him?” In an ironic parallel to Washington’s exasperation with the Pakistanis, Gul complains to the ISI officer about Islamabad’s two faces: “Why do you help America? You take their money and work with them, then you work with us as well. What kind of business is this?” That outburst notwithstanding, the ISI ruled in Gul’s favor — but not without making it clear who called the shots.
Unlike Malkasian and Gall, Gopal does not depict Pakistan as the primary spoiler in Afghanistan. And he rejects the conventional wisdom that the Afghan war went astray only because Washington took its eye off the ball by shifting its attention to Iraq. He puts forward a different hypothesis: “Following the Taliban’s collapse, al-Qaeda had fled the country. . . . By April 2002, the group could no longer be found in Kandahar — or anywhere else in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, had ceased to exist. . . . The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet U.S. special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism.”
This, Gopal claims, presented Washington with a puzzle: “How do you fight a war without an adversary?” The answer, he writes, was supplied by Afghan warlords who saw an opportunity to consolidate their power with the unwitting assistance of the Americans — and to get rich in the process. Such men “would create enemies where there were none,” feeding false intelligence to the Americans, who paid good money for it. The result was counterproductive U.S. and NATO operations that alienated and divided ordinary Afghans: ideal conditions for the Taliban and other militants to exploit after they had regrouped in Pakistan and crossed back into Afghanistan in 2005.
There is merit to Gopal’s thesis that the U.S. partnership with unpopular warlords helped open the way for the Taliban’s return. But Gopal errs in concluding that the Taliban had “ceased to exist” in Afghanistan after the group’s leaders fled back to their former Pakistani sanctuaries following the U.S.-led invasion. Thousands of Taliban foot soldiers, along with scores of midlevel leaders and commanders, had merely gravitated back to the protection of clans and tribes in Afghan villages and mountains, ready to fight another day. And although Washington’s embrace of warlords helped the Taliban win public support after regrouping, the militants would not have been able to return to Afghanistan in force without Pakistan’s assistance.
The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, for all its mistakes, reversed the slide into chaos, extremist tyranny, and terrorist incubation that had begun with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and hastened after the Taliban took power in 1996. Over the past decade, the U.S. coalition, coordinating with the Afghans and other players in the international community, has provided the space and time necessary for the resuscitation of Afghan state institutions that had been all but destroyed during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban’s rule. And the enthusiastic voter turnout in the two rounds of presidential balloting this past summer dramatically demonstrated popular support for democracy and opposition to the return of the Pakistan-backed Taliban.
Although some outside observers warn that Afghanistan is becoming a “failed state,” most Afghans believe that their country is back on its feet again as an independent member of the international community. The Afghan media, with its hundreds of private television and radio outlets, are as free and lively as any in the region. Afghan civil society has made considerable strides, especially in the area of women’s rights. More than a third of those who voted in the presidential elections were women. Nearly 40 percent of the children in Afghan schools are female. Over a quarter of Afghan parliamentary members are women, compared with just 20 percent in the U.S. Senate and 18 percent in the U.S. House of Representatives. And the latest class to graduate from the Afghan National Police’s officer-training academy included 51 women.
Such progress would not have been possible without the U.S.-led intervention. Securing the gains, however, will rely almost entirely on the newly formed Afghan government. The early twentieth century offers the country’s new leaders a useful model to draw on. Before the communist era, which began in 1978, Afghanistan enjoyed four decades of stability and slow but steady modernization. The country owed its progress largely to a unique relationship between the central government and traditional tribal structures in the regions. The government in Kabul did not possess a monopoly of power in the country but shared it with moderate tribal groups and clerics in rural areas. The government provided services such as schools, clinics, and roads to the regions, whose tribal elders administered their communities according to ancient codes and customs, maintained security, and participated in parliamentary conclaves in Kabul.
The new central government will have to decide whether and how to restore that kind of equilibrium. Some Afghans advocate the creation of a more parliamentary form of government, with a prime minister at the head of a decentralized state that devolves real, if limited, authority to elected provincial and district governors. Others believe that the status quo, with power rigidly centralized in Kabul, will remain necessary as long as the insurgency continues. The parliamentary option seems more prudent, given the Karzai regime’s failure to provide either security or economic benefits to most Afghans, despite receiving many billions of dollars in foreign assistance.
The next Afghan president will also have to cope with warlords whose power usually rests more on guns and money than on tribal or religious authority. Some of them have been integrated into the government structure, but most still control territory and drug-trafficking routes and sometimes collude with the Taliban. Degrading their strength will take time and a mixture of pressure and incentives. Afghans will also be watching closely for signs that the new government intends to remove, rather than tolerate, the many corrupt officials who became a fixture of the Karzai era.
HIGH PRESSURE, HIGH STAKES
By the end of 2014, almost 10,000 U.S. troops are slated to remain in Afghanistan, advising the Afghan security forces and assisting them with counterterrorism missions. But according to current U.S. policy, all those troops will be gone by the end of 2016. The fear of many Afghans and outside observers, myself included, is that once the last U.S. soldiers and marines have left Kabul, Afghanistan will again vanish from Washington’s agenda. Without sustained economic and military assistance, the fragile Afghan state might not hold together, and the country could descend into full-scale civil war.
To avoid that calamity, Washington needs to invest in Afghanistan for the long term, even if there aren’t any U.S. combat forces in the country. In 2012, the United States and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement that called for ten years of “close cooperation concerning defense and security”; Obama, and whoever succeeds him in the White House, must make good on that commitment by providing long-term assistance and training to Afghan army and police forces.
Washington must also take three crucial steps to increase the pressure on Islamabad to cease its support for restoring a radical Islamist government in Afghanistan. First, the United States should designate the Afghan Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization, which would result in financial sanctions against banks and other institutions in Pakistan that the group relies on for funding. Then, Washington should make clear that U.S. military aid to Pakistan will end if Islamabad does not shut down the ISI’s terrorist proxies. Finally, Washington should warn Islamabad that if Pakistan continues its support for extremists in Afghanistan, the United States might designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism — a move that would produce severe economic, political, and diplomatic consequences for Pakistan.
In an ironic echo, just as Iraq distracted U.S. attention from Afghanistan in 2003, so today the emergence of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, known as ISIS, has pushed Afghanistan off front pages and lower down the list of urgent priorities in Washington. But the rise of ISIS only underscores the importance of Afghanistan, which is one battleground where the United States and its allies could secure the defeat of Sunni extremism and help tip the balance in the Muslim world’s multidecade struggle between the moderate majority and the extremist fringe.