No Comment — August 12, 2007, 11:47 am

Assessing the Mess in Afghanistan

For the last year, the thinking in many well-informed circles among counterterrorism experts has been that Iraq was an incurable disaster. The internal contradictions and splits within the country were irreconcilable and there was no strategy which had any hope of producing anything like the outcome that the Bush Administration, led most confidently by Vice President Cheney, had confidently pronounced in late 2003 and 2004.

Indeed, the Administration’s own rhetoric recognized this. Certainly it never openly conceded the point, but it began a dramatic scaling back of its definition of “success,” which is the classic give-away for a strategy in collapse.

Still, it was argued (and I was among those making the argument), Afghanistan could be salvaged, and could provide a solid example of a successful contingency operation with counterterrorism as its keynote. This required a restructuring of the commitment to take into full account the extent of the challenge and to more effectively shore up a central government. Indeed, the Karzai government was everything we did not have in Iraq: a government with solid, nationwide popular support, committed to serious reforms. Perhaps it wasn’t an ideal government (what is? our own certainly isn’t), but it was pretty damn close.

For almost two years, the Bush Administration resisted these suggestions. It was never clear to me why, exactly. But it was always clear that the struggle in Afghanistan was a sort of unwanted stepchild. They wanted to go after Saddam and Iraq. They had to enter Afghanistan only because the facts forced it upon them–stubborn things, those facts.

Today, David Sanger and David Rohde at the New York Times give us a detailed look at what happened and what went wrong. This is exactly the sort of thing that the Times does better than its competition. The article starts with the “sweeping miscalculations” that were made in the early stages of the conflict, when the Taliban was deemed destroyed, and the relationship of the Talibans and their sympathizers and supporters across the illusory frontier in Pakistan was grossly misassessed:

Two years after the Taliban fell to an American-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey what appeared to be a triumph — a fresh start for a country ripped apart by years of war with the Soviets and brutal repression by religious extremists. With a senior American diplomat, R. Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters, with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the United States Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a “spent force.”

“Some of us were saying, ‘Not so fast,’ ” Mr. Burns, now the under secretary of state for political affairs, recalled. “While not a strategic threat, a number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear.” But that skepticism had never taken hold in Washington. Since the 2001 war, American intelligence agencies had reported that the Taliban were so decimated they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports.

The American sense of victory had been so robust that the top C.I.A. specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan had long since moved on to the next war, in Iraq. Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call “the good war” off course.

One thing that emerges very quickly from the Times analysis, though the authors are strangely hesitant to flag it: virtually all the senior diplomats, administrators, and military personnel who were on the ground in Afghanistan were very clear about the advice they gave to Washington and the fact that the Bush Administration refused to accept it. Does this sound familiar?

The view on the ground in Kabul and Kandahar had consistently been that a window of opportunity had opened in which a new government could be built and could gain popular loyalty sufficient completely to displace the Taliban, but that the struggle was far from finished. Yet at this key moment, the support lines were reduced to a trickle. It’s very clear where the tactical errors were made and who made them—in Washington, at the highest levels. That translates to the principal authors of the administration’s war plans–in the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld and his innermost coterie of Neocon advisors, and in the White House and the office of the decider’s decider, Dick Cheney. But their attention was focused on Iraq; they began to divert resources from Afghanistan to Iraq–and the ultimate outcome of this benighted policy assessment may be failure both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This article is key. But we should also direct a question to our friends in the media: why didn’t we hear this earlier? The information was out there, was constantly discussed and batted about in meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations and in other think tanks. But very little of it made its way into the press. We’ve read very little about Afghanistan in the pages of the major print dailies. When a story appeared it was usually sourced to the Pentagon or another government agency.

I agree with Barney Rubin that the Rodhe and Sanger account also falls seriously short on another front. It fails to record the very important contributions made by the United Nations and by the NATO allies. I think it’s very clear that but for this assistance (which is another way of saying: if the support had consisted only of the meager resources committed by the United States), the situation in Afghanistan would have gone into a serious meltdown much earlier. Rubin writes:

The article neglects one important aspect of the Afghan effort — the involvement of the United Nations, which the reporters do not even mention. Yet one of the major reasons for the limited successes in Afghanistan was precisely that, because of the low priority the administration assigned to it, it agreed to a recommendation from the State Department to empower the UN to take the lead in helping Afghans assemble a political transition. The UN organized and chaired the UN Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn that designed the transition, and it oversaw the Loya Jirgas (Grand Councils), constitutional process, elections, and adoption of the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to the Bonn Agreement, which the administration has unsuccessfully tried to copy in Iraq. It was the success of these UN political efforts as much as anything else that enabled the Bush administration to camouflage its strategic failure for so long.

Rohde and Sanger also failed to address another vexing aspect of the effort which would likely draw nasty letters from the Neocon deadenders, but certainly needs to be explored. That is the consequences of a different force configuration that relied heavily on contractors and simultaneously a change in rules of engagement that authorized heavy use of lethal force against civilians. These decisions jointly played an important role in the serious alienation of the civilian population, especially in the south, creating fertile territory upon which the Taliban could reemerge and raise recruits. Indeed, America’s military allies—notably the British—have been appalled at the way U.S. forces in Afghanistan unload bombs on civilian areas which are supposedly being protected. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the British Defense Minister and the NATO Secretary General are all reported to have protested to the Bush Administration over its counterproductive bombing-lust in Afghanistan, with no evident success. And a British commander in Helmand has recently stated that American military activities in the province are unwelcome.

Such issues need to be examined and considered carefully, painful as that process may be. The Afghan story is far from finished, and the prospects for a success at the end of the day may be diminished, but they are hardly gone. Whatever attitudes American policy makers may reach about Iraq, Afghanistan remains a different story, presenting starkly different challenges and options from Iraq. It’s a prickly challenge, but it’s wrong at this point to write it off as an irretrievable loss. Still, the first step to setting it aright involves taking a careful, full measure of what’s gone wrong. And Rohde and Sanger offer important tools to that end.

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