Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, August 2021
Good intentions and seductive illusions: Scenes from Afghanistan’s long descent
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban was like watching the collapse of the twin towers. In an instant, the edifice crumbled into a pile of rubble.
But it didn’t happen quickly, really. The structure of the Kabul government has been rotting from within for all 20 years of the United States’ war. And every U.S. commander knew its weakness. They worried about the corruption and incompetence of the government, devised elaborate strategies to fix it, kept convincing themselves they were making progress. Hope is not a strategy, as every commander knows. In this case, it was.
Too often, the generals brought the media along with them in this exercise of self-delusion. Looking back over a dozen years of my own reporting from Afghanistan, that’s one painful recognition. These columns often expressed skepticism about the larger enterprise, but they kept recording, year after year, the generals’ ambitions for success. It wasn’t a big lie so much as a series of little bubbles of false optimism.
When skeptical politicians questioned the strategy, senior military leaders went to friends in Congress, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “During those years, the military was seen by some senior political leaders as advancing an agenda, as opposed to acting in private,” retired Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, told me in an interview this week. “Our profession lost its way for a few years and our voices came to be seen as part of the cacophony of special interests.”
The weird part is that military victory was never really the United States’ goal. We were playing for a tie — a stalemate that weakened the Taliban enough that it would accept a diplomatic solution. We started trying to negotiate with the Taliban back in 2009 when the legendary Richard C. Holbrooke was special envoy, and serious talks were underway two years later under his successor, Marc Grossman.
President Barack Obama announced the official end of the United States’ combat mission in 2014, but it continued. President Donald Trump briefly tried for a win, hoping the enormous explosive device known as the “mother of all bombs,” would intimidate the Taliban. When it didn’t, he gave up and had his envoy Zalmay Khalilzad negotiate a peace deal. Trump was too worried about the risks to actually pull out the troops — but President Biden, who had been dubious about the Afghanistan mission, rejected the advice of his advisers and pulled the plug. U.S. combat troops finally left, and in six weeks, the tower of illusion crumbled.
Biden is being flayed both for his decision and its sloppy execution. Many of us had warned that by withdrawing the small remaining force too quickly, without a transition plan, he was unwisely ending a low-cost insurance policy against the disaster now unfolding. Biden owns the final decision, for better or worse.
But the hard truth is that this failure is shared by a generation of military commanders and policymakers, who let occasional tactical successes in a counterterrorism mission become a proxy for a strategy that never was. And it was subtly abetted by journalists who were scratching our heads wondering if it would work, but let the senior officials continue their magical thinking.
KABUL, January 2008 — Army Gen. Dan McNeill is the first of seven U.S. commanders I interview at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, a dilapidated building fronting on a shaded tea garden. He told me in January 2008 that the recent increase in Taliban terrorism attacks was really a sign of its weakness and the coalition’s strength. How could that be? The Taliban was regaining strength in parts of the country. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks had increased in 2007. The Kabul government was a mess. But in the military’s bubble of enthusiasm, what looked like failure was actually success. McNeil said he was pleased that the Pentagon had decided to send a few thousand more Marines to Afghanistan to “reinforce where you’re having success.”
Such upbeat talk in the face of a growing insurgency was eerily reminiscent of Iraq, I wrote. But on that same trip, I met some idealistic military and diplomatic officers in Jalalabad, at the ruggedly beautiful eastern edge of the country, who were building roads, dams and schools through what was known as a Provincial Reconstruction Team. I don’t think they were lying when they said they were making progress. They were just wrong.
NARAY, April 2008 — At this remote forward base deep in the mountains, reachable only by a Black Hawk helicopter, Col. Christopher Kolenda is schooling me on the main tribe in the region, the sub-tribes, the clans, and their history of alliances and feuds. He has studied this patch of turf he’s been assigned as if he were an amateur ethnologist — emulating the British colonial agents during the days of the Raj.
The United States wanted to play the Great Game in Afghanistan. Commanders knew this was a tribal nation, with a nearly feudal culture in the rural areas; just over the ridgeline is the fabled district of Nuristan, where Rudyard Kipling set his tale of “The Man Who Would Be King,” about a man who momentarily made himself a semi-deity in this slice of what the British called “the back of beyond.”
Kolenda is serious and sincere about studying the human terrain. But his tour ends a few months later, and not long after that, the United States withdraws its military presence from these remote mountains.
And so it goes: eager engagement followed by a precipitous pullback. In Asadabad, on Afghanistan’s eastern border near Pakistan, a gifted young State Department officer named Alison Blosser explains the “roads strategy” embraced by her Provincial Reconstruction Team to build security and prosperity. The team is constructing a two-lane road alongside the wild torrent of the Konar River. Farmers will transport their produce, shops will open, economic development will trickle into what she calls the “capillary valleys” where the Taliban had fled. And over time, peace and stability will emerge. The military is a “learning institution,” McNeill reassures me back in Kabul.
It isn’t a bad plan. It is just unrealistic — for an impatient superpower with a short attention span. Even the British colonial agents and their brave regiments eventually gave up in Afghanistan. By 2012, four years after my visit to the Konar Valley, the Americans and their noble reconstruction teams are gone as well.
KABUL, September 2008 — Gen. David D. McKiernan, the new U.S. commander, is explaining at his headquarters — still begging for a paint job — that the United States is struggling in Afghanistan because it faces a “nexus of insurgency.”
Taliban violence is up; McKiernan says he needs another 15,000 troops, beyond the 35,000 U.S. forces then in the country. Brig. Gen. James C. McConville (today a four-star general and Army chief of staff) delivers a PowerPoint briefing detailing what he calls the “insurgent syndicate.”
Listening to this pitch, you can’t help but scratch your head. “It’s not clear that this nexus, or syndicate, or whatever you want to call it, poses a mortal threat to the United States — or even, necessarily, to the government of Afghanistan,” I write. After all, some U.S. military analysts are describing the Afghan government itself as a criminal enterprise.
U.S. commanders stress, then and always, that this fight must be won by the Afghan military, which McKiernan says will double over the next three years, to 134,000 from 66,000. It’s not just “boots on the ground,” says McKiernan — it’s governance and economic development. Around the table, heads nod.
This doesn’t make sense, even to a listener who’s sympathetic to the mission. “The idea that we can saturate that vast country with enough American soldiers to provide security for the population seems unrealistic, to put it mildly,” I write. Still, even a career skeptic like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, with whom I’ve been traveling, seems convinced the United States must escalate.
Obama is elected in November, and he takes office deeply skeptical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he keeps Gates as his defense secretary, and sends another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 36,000 already there.
Counterinsurgency is the military’s new buzzword, after Gen. David H. Petraeus’s successful “surge” of troops in Iraq, starting in 2007. Obama embraces the counterinsurgency catechism. He replaces McKiernan as commander with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who immediately begins drawing up plans for another surge in Afghanistan. A wary Obama agrees to send an additional 30,000 troops, but he insists on withdrawing them by July 2011, regardless of conditions.
Notably, the only senior official consistently opposed to the troop surge and counterinsurgency gospel is Vice President Joe Biden. He insists that the Afghanistan war should be focused strictly on counterterrorism — preventing al-Qaeda from regaining a haven to attack the United States.
KABUL, April 2009 — Holbrooke, a brilliantly conniving State Department veteran known as “the bulldozer,” is sitting in a conference room in Kabul. Across from him are glowering tribal leaders, with the turbans and flowing beards of the Taliban. One of them spent two years as a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay.
A sun-scorched tribal chief from Paktika tells Holbrooke the United States should stop killing Afghan civilians and start talking to the Taliban about ending the war. “What attracts people to the Taliban?” Holbrooke asks sweetly. “Give us advice on reconciliation with the Taliban. What other suggestions do you have?”
It is part show, a taste of Holbrooke’s penchant for theater and manipulation. But it reflects a new reality, and a new conundrum that U.S. officials will struggle with for years and that persists until now. U.S. officials knew that a deal with the Taliban was the only feasible solution, but the Taliban was an untrustworthy partner for negotiations. After watching Holbrooke try to sweet talk the insurgents that day, I write that the headline in my mind was clear: “Bulldozer Meets Quagmire.”
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 2009 — In the living room of a supposed safe house, the indefatigable Holbrooke is holding what is supposed to be a meeting with young leaders from Waziristan and other tribal areas of Pakistan.
Holbrooke is admirably in listening mode, but one of the tribal representatives stops him short with the comment, “We are all [Pakistani] Taliban.” Later, we learn that these brave intermediaries, who dared to meet with Americans, were arrested by the Pakistani intelligence service when they tried to return home.
Holbrooke works himself to death, literally, searching for an exit ramp from Afghanistan. In December 2010, he dies from a fatal tear in his heart. Just the day before, I’m told, he asks a colleague: “Why wasn’t Pakistan getting the message?” and halting its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The role of Pakistan has haunted — and infuriated — a generation of U.S. military leaders, intelligence officers and policymakers. Pakistan’s double-dealing is part of the wreckage of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
NAWA, October 2009 — Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson is talking about how to bring what coalition planners call “government in a box” to dusty, sunbaked towns in Helmand province like Nawa and a nearby Taliban stronghold called Marja. Nicholson explains how much time he’s spending providing services for local leaders, rather than training his Marines at nearby Camp Leatherneck. “I’ve bought more friggin’ pomegranates than you can imagine,” he tells me.
Nicholson, a quotable commander, tells reporters that a turning point is ahead if the Marines can control the area.
Marja is eventually captured, and things look calm when I visit the following April with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “By all appearances, the people of Marja just want to get on with their lives,” Mullen says after meeting with a group of tribesmen.
But when I ask one of the provincial officials whether he sleeps overnight in Marja, he quickly shakes his head. The Taliban still owns the night here, it seems, after the supposed turning point has been reached.
KABUL, June 2010 — U.S. headquarters in Kabul is looking more forlorn than ever.
McChrystal has just been fired as commander; his aides made remarks to Rolling Stone critical of Obama administration officials, including Biden, for balking at sending more troops. The media-savvy Petraeus is on the way to relieve McChrystal — and Mullen is trying to reassure everyone not to get too shaken up. “Don’t overreact; don’t over-adjust. Don’t shy away from the press,” he tells military and civilian officials in a videoconference. In a meeting at the Kabul embassy, he tells diplomats: “We need to tell our story.”
But with all due respect to Mullen: The problem isn’t with the story. It’s with the reality.
KANDAHAR, September 2010 — A bracing moment of candor comes after Gates visits a small operating base here (he calls it a “forward foxhole”) and tells soldiers he’s “encouraged” by the progress they’re making in securing and stabilizing the country.”
There’s a blazing sun, and some soldiers are gathered for a smoke under a bit of shade after Gates has spoken. Sgt. Michael B. Ellis, who heads a brigade security team, says of the Afghan army and police who are supposedly our partners: “They’re just not up to speed, They lack organization.” He describes how Afghan soldiers began firing their AK-47s wildly in the sky after a recent Taliban attack.
“If it were to be clear that the strategy is not working, then I would be one of the first to advocate changing the strategy," Gates tells me later in an interview. “I will not sign the deployment orders sending kids in harm’s way for a strategy that I don’t believe in.”
ZHARI, December 2010 — This Taliban stronghold west of Kandahar has traded hands repeatedly during the course of the war. People here supported the Taliban for years because it provided a rough form of law and order. The U.S. presence has tipped some locals toward supporting the Afghan government. But a few days before I arrive, the Taliban detonated a bomb nearby, killing six U.S. soldiers.
Will the United States stay? Casey Johnson, a civilian aid worker, tells me that’s the question Afghans keep asking him when he goes “outside the wire” to meet with residents. “People are waiting, they’re on the fence,” he tells me. “The question is, ‘Will you still be here next spring and summer when the Taliban come back?’”
KABUL, December 2010 — Petraeus lays out his plans on a series of charts, four feet tall, displayed on six easels. He’s done this before, in Iraq, and it worked. The “Octopus” strategy. Come at the enemy from all sides. Choke off money, supplies, popular support. Nearby, I spot some other senior commanders rolling their eyes.
“I’ve seen Petraeus give many briefings over the years, and it’s a bit like watching a magician at work,” I write later. "Even though you’ve seen the trick before, and you know the patter, you still get mesmerized.” The bottom line: “If briefings could win wars, Gen. David Petraeus would already be finished in Afghanistan.”
KHOST, June 2011 — Brig Gen. Mark S. Martins travels by Black Hawk helicopter to a provincial capital in the rugged mountains east of Kabul to demonstrate a simple idea that he thinks can change the war, even at this late date. He displays a map of 88 districts without government prosecutors and 117 without judges. It’s the same as his map of the Taliban’s strongholds.
Martins is heading a new Rule of Law Field Force to provide justice. In Khost, we meet a Taliban prisoner named Mohammed Nazir, who’s brought from his cell in ankle cuffs. He explains what’s wrong with Afghanistan. “The major problem is our justice system. It is corrupt.” Martins nods. The prisoner is right.
In Kabul, Petraeus has accomplished one thing. The ragtag International Security Assistance Force headquarters finally looks neat and tidy. But he leaves command after less than a year to take over as director of the CIA.
Petraeus’s departure marks a turning point. Obama announces a troop withdrawal plan that will bring home 10,000 troops by the end of 2011. In March, Obama says he intends to “responsibly wind down this war.” By September 2012, the number of U.S. troops has fallen to 77,000.
Grossman, the special envoy who followed Holbrooke, begins secret talks with the Taliban in early 2011. The strategy is clear: Find a settlement and end the war. In 2014, Obama announces that he is halting the U.S. combat mission.
And yet the war continues, like a perpetual motion machine. Dunford, who becomes chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2015, explained in an interview that from that time on, the military was essentially providing “term insurance,” with an ever-smaller garrison in Afghanistan that could provide a platform for counterterrorism operations.
Trump wanted to end that small presence, but Dunford recalls cautioning him in 2017 that if al-Qaeda struck from Afghanistan and 1,000 Americans were killed, “no one can say we didn’t see it coming.”
“President Trump wanted out, but when confronted with the risk, he chose not to direct a complete withdrawal,” Dunford said. “President Biden chose to accept the risk of withdrawal.”
A risk about which he had ample warning. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the last commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, is said to have warned his colleagues and Biden that if the final 2,500 American troops were withdrawn: “It’s going to be bad, and it’s going to be fast.”
Of all the predictions over the past two decades, that one, tragically, may have been the most prescient.
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