Although American leaders have not quite yet admitted it publicly — or, apparently, even privately — the US war in Afghanistan has been a strategic failure. After nearly ten years of frustration, the Obama Administration is clearly looking for a reasonably graceful exit that will provide — to recycle a phrase from the Vietnam era — a “decent interval” between US withdrawal and the complete collapse of the country into chaotic violence. The American inability to create a thriving, stable Afghan polity offers vital lessons concerning the sort of “deep” nation-building missions that Western countries should, if at all possible, avoid in the future. A forensic examination of the Afghan failure also points us toward operational concepts that will better serve the strategic ends of the United States and its allies: efficient, ruthless grand raids that are limited in time scale and not intended to “fix the unfixable.”
A State that Is Not a State
Afghanistan’s central government has never been capable of convincingly exercising a monopoly on violence over most of its national territory, much less performing the complex functions necessary for modern governance and related economic development. (In this regard, Afghanistan is quite unlike Iraq, which was ruled, brutally but effectively, from Baghdad until the Persian Gulf War and the no-fly-zones that denied Saddam Hussein military access to parts of the country.) Even the Soviet Army — an institution with a solid record of imposing Moscow’s writ over reluctant “liberated” populations — found Afghanistan to be ungovernable.
There is no Afghan nation, in any reasonable sense of the term; demographic maps of the country shows a chaotic distribution of myriad ethnicities reminiscent of a Jackson Pollack painting. “Afghanistan” essentially is just a geographical expression that history turned into a parody of a nation-state. Moreover, the landlocked country is desperately poor, overpopulated (given its largely agricultural economy and shortage of arable land), and has a staggering rate of illiteracy. In gross domestic product terms, even after tens of billions in development aid doled out over a decade, it still is rated as a least-developed country. Afghanistan’s main export product remains illegally-grown opium.
Afghanistan is, in short, one of the least promising states in Eurasia for would-be nation-builders; a basic examination of the country’s circumstances makes it clear that its prospects for becoming stable would, under the best of circumstances, appear to be extremely dim. Nevertheless, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (9/11) and the subsequent refusal of that country’s Taliban government to surrender Osama Bin Laden to the custody of the United States, the G.W. Bush administration promised to engage in “fixing” Afghanistan,[i] providing the country a better future. Vague promises soon expanded to a full-fledged commitment to democratization, modernization, and stabilization that became the metric by which American success would be judged.
The decision to yoke American victory in Afghanistan to the success of nation-building in Afghanistan was a very imprudent one, and represented a gross failure of strategic prudence. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, the American citizenry clearly demanded that Al Qaeda be dealt with harshly. Although a simple desire for rough justice drove the public, retaliating for the attacks was also the only strategically sound response that the administration could make. It was incumbent on the Executive branch to demonstrate that terrorist attacks on US soil, or the sponsorship and protection of those who would do so, would not be tolerated. After the Taliban did not promptly and meekly surrender Bin Laden, therefore, invading Afghanistan was the correct decision in both domestic political and strategic terms: the US public would enjoy the satisfaction of seeing a particularly nasty Islamist government crushed by its armed forces, while the act of doing so would serve as a useful warning to other governments that might be inclined to harbor groups such as Al Qaeda.
It was not, however, necessary to offer to reconstruct (or, more accurately, construct) Afghanistan after removing the Taliban from power. There was very little demand on the part of the American citizenry that their government take responsibility for Afghanistan’s fate—frankly, most Americans did not care much whether or not Afghanistan became a thriving country. The notion that the United States would take responsibility for Afghanistan helped somewhat to blunt criticism of the US invasion, but, strategically speaking, this was a poor trade. The actual benefits for Washington were quite minimal. Given the international “state of play” in late 2001, it was obvious that regardless of whether the United States took responsibility for Kabul’s long-term fate, many states and organizations would oppose an American invasion of Afghanistan and the United Nations would not sanction such an endeavor.
In fact, the commonly accepted belief that the United States enjoyed overwhelming international sympathy and support for its actions in the months immediately following Afghanistan – and that this support only waned because Washington acted in an increasingly unilateral manner – is gravely flawed. Two months after the 9/11 attack President Bush addressed the UN General Assembly; notably, the UN was an institution that had been specifically threatened by Osama Bin Laden and, of course, the headquarters where Bush spoke is located in New York City itself.
Yet as the New York Times tartly noted at the time, “Mr. Bush’s address seemed to affirm a new faith in multilateralism. Nonetheless, the speech was not interrupted by applause. Neither was the speech of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani at the United Nations in October.”[ii] This silence was significant, as it made clear precisely how much support the United States truly enjoyed from the in much of the international community after the 9/11 attacks. Of course, the United States was far from wholly isolated—NATO, for example, took the step of invoking Article V of its Charter to show solidarity with the United States. As a whole, however, the international community did not rally to Washington’s side—which was hardly surprising, given the results of a Pew survey of opinion leaders globally undertaken in November and December 2001. Leaving the Americans surveyed aside, 58% of those surveyed believed many or most people in their country thought that US policy was responsible for the attacks; 70% of those surveyed believed that many or most people in their countries believed that, “It’s good that Americans now know what it’s like to be vulnerable.”[iii]
Sending the Message
Even if the international community’s support could have been purchased in exchange for American guarantees in regard to Afghanistan’s future, it likely would have been of relatively little practical value. Militarily—contrary to many agitated media predications about supposedly battle-hardened jihadis and the clichéd “brutal Afghan winter”—the Taliban was very weak. The Afghan government lacked a modern air force, or much in the way of advanced weaponry in general, and Taliban forces essentially were an undertrained and ill-disciplined rabble. The Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan were, man-for-man, somewhat more formidable, but small in number. Lacking air support and high-technology weapons, there was little they could do to resist the American onslaught.
The only truly important military help that the United States required for its Afghan expedition was the cooperation of the local Northern Alliance—which of course was fighting the Taliban and therefore delighted to collaborate with the Americans—and the granting by Pakistan of overflight rights to the United States. The United States accomplished the latter through old-fashioned bribery and threat: very substantial US military and other aid to Pakistan was announced shortly after the 9/11 attacks and Washington made it quite clear to Islamabad that its assistance in the Afghan campaign was not optional.
Given these realities, the most strategically sensible course for the United States to pursue was a straightforward one: a grand raid whose purpose would be to displace the Taliban government and capture or kill as many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters as possible, with Osama Bin Laden being (for obvious reasons) by far the most important individual target. Thus, while the wisdom of specific military choices (such as the decision to pause combat operations during the Battle of Tora Bora) during the winter of 2001-02 may be debated, the general character of American operations during the early period of the Afghan conflict was appropriate.
The fundamental error was not an operational one, but the political-strategic one of accepting a task—the creation of a “new” Afghanistan—that would be extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible), expensive; and would guarantee that Washington would undermine the message to its friends and enemies alike that it was capable of winning a speedy and decisive victory on its own terms over terrorists and their allies. There are two broad objections to framing the Afghan conflict in this way, but neither of them can withstand cold-eyed scrutiny.
The first objection, and the more narrowly “strategic” one, is the contention that only a long-term presence in the country would ensure that the Taliban would not return to power and allow Afghanistan would not again become a terrorist haven. This is true, insofar as it goes—only a comprehensive nation-building exercise would turn Afghanistan from a potential enemy to an American ally. Indeed, Kabul is officially now a US partner in the struggle against jihadist terrorism. It would be more accurate, however, to describe it as a weak client state whose government is entirely dependent on Washington for its survival.
This relationship is not, substantively speaking, any more beneficial to Washington than a less formal relationship would be. It makes perfect sense to prop up an anti-Taliban regime with military and financial aid, but this does not require that the United States take responsibility for its survival. Indeed, that is the usual case with US relationships with dubious or unstable regimes, including those in the Muslim world. For decades, the United States enjoyed fruitful relationships with many Arab countries whilst never publicly guaranteeing that their citizens would enjoy domestic political stability, much less democracy. (In recent months, unfortunately, the United States has begun to deviate from this sensible policy, as its Libyan adventure demonstrated dramatically.)
Certainly, the government of Hamid Karzai should have been supported generously, but it was unnecessary and counterproductive for US/NATO troops to stay in the country and take responsibility for the survival of the new regime. A well-supplied Afghan government should have been able to keep control of Kabul and other major cities, though it probably would not have de facto authority over much of the countryside—a situation not very dissimilar from the one today. If the Taliban seriously threatened the Afghan government’s position in any of the major cities, the temporary provision of US air support—and, if absolutely necessary, small numbers of ground troops—should have sufficed to ensure that the Taliban was beaten back.
The notion that it was necessary to remake Afghanistan in order to prevent it from again becoming a terrorist haven was doubly flawed. There is the obvious point that much of rural Afghanistan still is controlled by the Taliban—a situation that was entirely predictable, given the geographical character (physical and human) of the country. The United States could have permanently maintained a force as large as the one it later placed in Iraq, and this still would not have prevented the reconstitution of the Taliban. Afghanistan, after all, is an entity noticeably larger than Iraq in both physical and population terms, and the portion of the state bordering Pakistan is wild country clearly beyond the control of any occupier unwilling or unable also to operate on the ground in Pakistan.
Moreover, an international terrorist group is, by its nature, mobile. While it was certainly useful to Bin Laden to have the full resources of even a weak country at his disposal, once the control of the machinery of the Afghan state was no longer in the hands of his allies there was no special advantage to operating in Afghanistan, as opposed to any of dozens of other feeble or failed states (or even relatively ungoverned portion of otherwise fairly stable states) where there is some popular sympathy for Islamic radicalism. Given that the entire world cannot be “fixed”, there was no reason to focus particularly on fixing a piece of it located in the center of Eurasia.
For obvious reasons, “draining the swamp” in principle is indeed preferable to periodically spraying DDT, but in actual practice the costs of doing the former often are so much greater that the latter clearly is the more sensible course. This point also all-too-clearly applies to Iraq. The Bush administration quite justifiably was exasperated by Iraq’s constant troublemaking, but after its invasion quickly discovered that the price of containing Iraq and coping with Hussein’s misbehavior was infinitesimal in comparison to that of implementing a comprehensive solution to “the Saddam problem.”
The second objection to implementing a raiding strategy in Afghanistan is based primarily on humanitarian concerns: in short, that a mere raid would do nothing to provide the people of that country with the opportunity to grasp a better future. There perhaps was a strong moral case to be made that the United States should take on the burden of creating a more humane Afghanistan. The plight of Afghan women, in particular, shocked the conscience. Leaving aside the complex ethical question of whether Western countries should engage in Kiplingesque imperial endeavors, however, the strategic answer as to whether the United States should have attempted this project is a resounding “no.” Afghanistan’s human rights record—and, again, especially the mistreatment of woman in Afghan society—was appalling, and one certainly can argue that Afghanistan’s human rights violators should be dealt with using military force.
However, that is a moral, not a strategic, argument and it is vital that the two not be confused. If Americans and others wish to use their armies to slay monsters, they are free to do so—and perhaps should be congratulated on their vigorous enforcement of decency—but such endeavors should not be expected to render any profit strategically.
Indeed, it is somewhat perverse that the United States decided that it must help the people of Afghanistan because their country contained a great many people who dedicated themselves to inflicting harm on innocent Americans. By contrast, few individuals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, have dedicated themselves to anti-American terrorism or similar activities. Yet here, the United States has done virtually nothing to bring order and prosperity to a country whose horrific and long-running civil disorder claims lives every day—the endless strife in that country has killed millions and left tens of millions impoverished, emotionally or physically damaged, forced to flee their communities, or otherwise suffering.
Compared to Afghans, however, the Congolese have received little help from the United States—or the international community in general—and certainly no multi-hundred billion dollar guarantees to rebuild their country into a prosperous and stable democracy. Indeed, their plight has not even received significant notice in the US media—most Americans have little, if any, knowledge regarding the situation in Congo.
The tragedy of the Congo is, of course, only one of many that could be cited to make the point that the nation-building project in Afghanistan is fundamentally different from the American reconstruction of Japan and (West) Germany after the Second World War. The latter enterprises were fundamentally strategic, not humanitarian, in character: American leaders believed, correctly that if those countries did not become stable and prosperous democracies, they might eventually present a significant threat to the United States (either as Soviet allies or “rogue” powers).
Relieving the personal plight of German and Japanese citizens was an incidental benefit—though a very great one, in humanitarian terms; it did not drive US policy. While many US leaders no doubt believe sincerely that the reconstruction of Afghanistan is important to US security, it frankly is not—it is a humanitarian endeavor masquerading as a strategic one. Even if nearly every Afghan were to reject Islamism and come to respect the United States—a highly improbable development—this would merely eliminate some potential recruits for organizations like Al Qaeda; the overall strategic threat presented by Islamist terrorism would not decrease dramatically.
Conclusion: Minimize Risk, Maximize Return
Historically, the great risk of raiding strategies has been the possibility that some misfortune—the enemy fleet appearing at the wrong time, a traitor revealing the plans for the strike, etc.—would result in the decimation of the raiding force. Today, given their superiority in equipment and training—and, perhaps most critically, the ability to call on airpower assets for devastating fire support—even relatively small units belonging to first-rate military organizations can defeat large numbers of second-rate foes.
Poorly armed and organized forces like the Taliban can be dealt with effectively only if one applies appropriate operational concepts that will allow the attainment of reasonable strategic goals. The US had inappropriate strategic goals in Afghanistan, however, and the result was a quagmire. The lesson for the future is clear—the world cannot be fixed one failed state at a time, and attempting to do so is a fool’s errand.
[i] “Our aims in Afghanistan are well known to the American people and this Committee. We seek to bring about an Afghanistan that is free of terrorists, that no longer is a source of poppy, and that allows its citizens—including an estimated five million refugees and an unknown number of internally displaced persons—to return to their homes and live normal lives in which opportunity replaces misery.” Richard N. Haass, Director of the Office of the Policy Planning Staff, and U.S. Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan, Testimony Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 6 December 2001, “Future of Afghanistan,” accessed at http://www.state.gov/s/p/rem/6757.htm
[ii] Elisabeth Bumiller, “A Nation Challenged: The President,” New York Times online ed., 11 November 2001.
[iii] Pew Global Attitudes Project, “America Admired, Yet Its New Vulnerability Seen As Good Thing, Say Opinion Leaders,” 19 December 2001, accessed at http://www.pewglobal.org/2001/12/19/america-admired-yet-its-new-vulnerability-seen-as-good-thing-say-opinion-leaders/5/