BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
We’ve all heard the argument since 2008: after September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush Administration rightly took the United States into war against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan–the former being directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the latter being responsible for harboring al Qaeda. In the aftermath of the Iraq War in 2003, we were told that Afghanistan was the “good war” and Iraq was George W. Bush’s ill-fated “war of choice.”
Certainly, Iraq was a fiasco.
And, while there were some true victories and amazing moments in American history experienced in Afghanistan (particularly at the outset of the campaign in October of 2001), I’m not entirely sure that Afghanistan was a “good war” (if there even is such a thing) at all. Or, rather, I’m not convinced that any American leader from George W. Bush to Donald Trump has managed that conflict properly.
The War in Afghanistan has cost a total of $1.07 trillion US dollars, as of January of 2018. According to The Balance, the costs of the war can be broken down into three parts:
“First is the $773 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds specifically dedicated to the Afghanistan War […]
Second is the increase of $243 billion to the base budget of the Department of Defense. Third is the increase of $54.2 billion to the Department of Veteran Affairs budget. […]
Some of these costs are also attributable to the War in Iraq. But the true cost of the Afghanistan War should include the addition to these departments, even if some of the funds went toward both wars. For more on how to determine the actual cost of defense, see the U.S. Military Budget.”
Further, the wear-and-tear on the U.S. military’s equipment, the destruction of our image as the “strongest tribe” in the Muslim world, and the disruptive effects our 18-year-long presence in Afghanistan has had on the wider region have all been seriously damaging to American grand strategy (and our ability to project force elsewhere). The level of repair and revitalization the military will need is great.
Yet, the operational tempo continues at high levels for the U.S. military, not only in Afghanistan but throughout the world (despite the fact that Secretary of Defense James Mattis continues cautioning Americans that their military lacks “readiness,” even though the Trump Administration has the largest defense budget in history).
For their part, the Taliban remain deeply rooted in at least 68 percent of the country and now the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham appears intent on reconstituting itself, in some form, in the country’s east. Meanwhile, the Afghan government that the United States has poured billions of dollars into remains as sclerotic and corrupt as ever (thereby making an American exit of the country a dangerous scenario at best).
Writing recently in his new book, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, Naval War College professor, Harlan K. Ullman laments that, “since the end of the Cold War [the] United States and both of its political parties seemed incapable of applying sound strategic thinking, and judgment, of treating the causes and not the symptoms of crises, threats, and challenges to security and well-being.”
He further argues that, “When the United States intervenes and starts a war for mistaken reasons, especially the most flawed reasons, it will fail. Since the end of the Cold War, interventions in Iraq, Libya, and most likely Afghanistan have repeated these unfortunate outcomes.” In Ullman’s view (and others over the years), America’s penchant for deploying force first and ignoring diplomacy and other tools of statecraft have been our greatest weaknesses.
Indeed, the United States has become a one-trick pony in foreign policy and that pony is getting old, fat, and its ability to effectively perform the one trick it used to do well–use force–it no longer can do. The War in Afghanistan is a wonderful example of this. It is not America’s “good war.”
Instead, it is as great of a disaster as Iraq was.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
In his thrilling new book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Steve Coll dispels many of the original assumptions belying the War in Afghanistan during the Bush years. Namely, while the opening phase–the “light footprint” strategy from 2001-02–saw much success, it was also needlessly chaotic and dangerously under-resourced (and possibly even mismanaged).
The defense apparatchiks of the Bush Administration were understandably concerned about rankling the Afghans with a large American military presence. After all, the common assumption was that the three previous major military interventions in Afghanistan (the two British expeditions there in the 19th century and the Soviet invasion in the 1980s) were effectively repulsed because the Afghans opposed the presence of large numbers of foreign militants in their lands.
Of course, no thought was given to the fact that the intentions of the British Empire as well as the Soviet Union were quite dissimilar from those of the United States. They also ignored the fact that both the Bactrian kingdom which dominated Afghanistan after Alexander the Great’s conquest there lasted for at least 200 years after Alexander passed.
Further, they forgot that al Qaeda itself was a foreign force operating in Afghanistan, and had the support of many locals because of religious affinities and economic dependence (Bin Laden was wealthy and paid people off to allow him and his forces to stay in Afghanistan).
More importantly, there was no inclination that the Bush Administration had initially planned to stay in Afghanistan beyond the destruction of al Qaeda and the toppling of the Taliban. But, when al Qaeda merely dispersed into neighboring Pakistan along with the Taliban, everything changed (for the worse).
One reason for this unfortunate turn of events was not only the tactical decision made to keep an incredibly small number of American forces (both paramilitary CIA teams and U.S. Special Forces A-Teams) fighting in Afghanistan, but also because we had no diplomatic strategy going into Afghanistan whatsoever.
Or, rather, our diplomatic strategy was to issue demands and edicts at everyone involved from our European allies to the hideous Taliban to the Pakistanis.
All emphasis was placed on a military response that was purposely kept at historically small levels, while we acted imperiously on the world stage. It felt good at the time to act in such a way but it was ultimately short-sighted.
Former U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters reminds audiences about “war’s immutable law.” Peters explains that there are:
“Those [who are] unwilling to pay the butcher’s bill up front will pay it with compound interest in the end.”
This perfectly encapsulates the American experience throughout the Middle East, but in particular, in Afghanistan. Going into Afghanistan, the United States was keen on keeping its military footprint light, so they needed to work with regional allies (namely, Pakistan). Yet, the United States was disinterested in taking into account the geostrategic position of its supposed ally in Pakistan.
For Pakistan, everything revolves around their ongoing battle with India. For decades, the Pakistanis have used Afghanistan and their fellow Muslims there (notably the majority ethnic-Pashtuns) as strategic depth. The fight is over Indian-controlled Kashmir. The Indians are a majority Hindu. The Pakistanis are Muslim. Therefore, Pakistan uses its connections with the wider Muslim world to complicate Indian designs for South Asia.
The Taliban in particular has long been a client of Pakistani intelligence. Few in Washington cared or even acknowledged that the very same ally they were planning to rely on was also inextricably tethered to the Taliban.
So, 18 years later, as more news come out about Pakistani intelligence’s duplicity in dealing with both the Taliban and, to a lesser extent, al Qaeda, everyone in Washington, D.C.–across the political spectrum–acts like they’ve been stabbed in the back. From the onset of the War in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis had been pleading with their American friends to keep Pakistani interests in mind.
In the run-up to the war, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) insisted that the United States try to work out a deal with the Taliban to end al Qaeda without removing the Taliban. The Pakistanis were right when they pointed out that the United States should have remained laser-focused on the hunt for Bin Laden and the crushing of al Qaeda (thereby leaving the mop up and knock-on effects to our regional partners).
Understandably, the Bush Administration opposed this from the start. In their eyes, the Taliban were as guilty as al Qaeda. Of course, we now know that that is not necessarily the case. At the time, though, virtue signaling was all the rage on the American Right.
From Pakistan’s point of view, according to Steve Coll’s recent book:
“Pakistan’s core interests, managed through I.S.I., included the promotion of a peaceful Afghanistan and the reduction of poppy cultivation and heroin trafficking, which [the Taliban] had delivered. The Taliban controlled all of the country except a few pockets in the north, and drug production had been reduced.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that, despite the popular meme that the Taliban was al Qaeda and vice-versa, the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda before the American invasion of Afghanistan was complicated. Yes, the Taliban did allow al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary, and yes, the Taliban did share a religious worldview with al Qaeda (but, more importantly, so too did some of America’s most significant allies in the region–namely Saudi Arabia and Pakistan).
However, Mullah Omar, the one-eyed bandit who commanded the Taliban (and his cadre of loyalists within the upper echelon of the Taliban) had no clue that Osama Bin Laden was planning to conduct the 9/11 attacks. Omar was a seventh century man living in the 21st century.
To claim that he could have even understood what Bin Laden was about to partake in was laughable–especially when all reports indicate that Bin Laden and the top al Qaeda leadership relished in Omar’s utter ignorance and indifference about world affairs.
The way the Bush Administration saw it: the Taliban were harboring a mass murderer and that was the same as having committed the murder itself. But, the situation was far more complicated than most at the time were willing to entertain.
The Taliban may have lived in the 21st century but their ways and outlook were deeply ensconced in the distant past. And, Afghanistan’s physical isolation from the world–as well as its poor level of development–only reinforced the backward Taliban worldview.
When pressed by Pakistani intelligence to hand over Bin Laden before the United States declared Mullah Omar and his regime a co-enemy with al Qaeda, Mullah Omar promised to meet with an “assembly of religious scholars” in Kabul on September 16, 2001.
During the meeting in Kabul, Omar addressed the assembly and, the Islamic scholars made the dubious announcement that, “Bin Laden was free to leave Afghanistan of his own free will.” According to Coll’s recounting, Pakistani intelligence considered the gesture by the religious scholars to have been a “momentous occasion.”
Understandably, the American side did not view it that way. We in the United States, rightly awaken in angry indignation by the 9/11 attacks, did not comprehend that things in Afghanistan worked far differently from many other parts of the world. Many believed the Taliban were stalling.
They may have been.
Yet, our friends in Pakistani intelligence and throughout the region genuinely believed that the assembly’s pronouncement was but the first step in what could have been a long line of moves toward de-linking the Taliban from al Qaeda (such as their connection was), and to preventing the United States from having to commit to a decades-long, interminable, and ultimately wasteful reconstruction program in Afghanistan.
I do not write these things because I am an admirer of the Taliban. These things must be written because a majority of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns…and a majority of Afghans are Pashtun. It is a sad irony, then, that the United States hamstrung itself in the early days of the War in Afghanistan–when America had the greatest chance of both capturing Bin Laden and ending al Qaeda’s threat–so as to avoid alienating the majority of Afghans.
However, thanks to Washington’s prompt decision to lump the Taliban in with al Qaeda on September 20, 2001, Afghan dissatisfaction with the United States military was all but assured.
Ultimately, some Pashtun elements, led by Hamid Karzai an Afghan elite who had previously fled the Taliban, helped the United States in the aftermath of the Taliban’s collapse.
Although, I believe, had American strategists actually listened to the Pakistanis on the issue of the Taliban, there would have been no need at all to suffer the kind of ethnic animosity most American forces endured in the generally Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan from 2002-18.
It should come as no surprise that despite having been the target of the American military’s ire for the duration of the War in Afghanistan, the Taliban persist–and they live comfortably in almost all Pashto-speaking regions of Afghanistan.
Coincidence? I think not.
The former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, Michael Scheurer, rightly dubbed the Taliban a “Pashtun liberation movement.”
Writing in 2001, the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, Bob Grenier is reported to have sent a memo to Langley in which he outlined a plan to “work closely with the Pakistanis [to create a government-in-exile for Afghanistan that was favorable to both Washington and Islamabad], concentrate on the south [of Afghanistan], and go slowly with our bombing.”
Grenier further recommended:
“[The War in Afghanistan] should be primarily a political struggle rather than a military one.”
Because of the Taliban’s role as a de facto “Pashtun liberation movement,” Grenier (and the Pakistanis) worried that “if the United States came in wholeheartedly on the side of the Northern Alliance that that would only cause Pashtuns to coalesce around the Taliban.
For his troubles, in the words of journalist Steve Coll, Grenier was labeled by CIA headquarters as “Taliban Bob,” and was accused by colleagues of having acquired an acute case of “clientitis” (wherein someone charged with keeping tabs on a region or a country begins to take on the worldview of that region or country at the expense of their own national interests).
All of this, I believe, was an unfair criticism of Grenier (who ended up being basically right, in my view).
So, early on the decision was made to use as little of an American footprint as possible heading into Afghanistan, the so-called “graveyard of empires.” Yet, the Bush Administration also insisted on alienating the “ally” it was most heavily relying on, Pakistan, by completely ignoring (and undercutting) Pakistani national interests in Afghanistan.
Then, the Bush Administration opted to further complicate its objectives by rebuking India’s offer to assist the United States in Afghanistan, out of (a correct) belief that Pakistan’s assistance was more greatly needed and, India’s involvement in any anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, would effectively alienate the Pakistanis.
America’s objective in October of 2001 in Afghanistan should have expressly been predicated on capturing Osama Bin Laden and busting al Qaeda apart in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis warned the Bush Administration at the time that its strategy of taking on both al Qaeda and the Pashtun-dominated Taliban–with such a little amount of American troops on the ground–would “produce thousands of frustrated young Muslim men.”
Further, the Pakistanis correctly worried that hitting al Qaeda and the Taliban so hard would send them running for the hills (literally) along the Pakistan border and, ultimately, into Pakistan itself.
It’s very telling that even America’s preferred candidate to have led in Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted from power, Hamid Karzai, wanted to accept a conditional surrender from a massive Taliban force that had gathered at the fortress town of Shah Wali Kot on December 5, 2001.
Mullah Omar was attempting to broker a peace with America’s client. However, on December 6, 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took to the Pentagon press room to deliver his now-infamous press briefing, in which he announced that “any negotiated end to the war against the Taliban was ‘unacceptable to the United States.'”
The fiasco at Shah Wali Kot precipitated Mullah Omar (and several of his most-trusted Taliban comrades) to flee into Pakistan, and further destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The idea of all of those al Qaeda and Taliban radicals fleeing into the barely controlled, mostly Pashtun-speaking Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan’s western frontier frightened the Pakistani government.
After all, the Pakistani government had a tenuous grip both on its political power and its nuclear weapons arsenal. Had the Islamists from neighboring Afghanistan fled into the uncontrollable Pakistani frontier, and enmeshed themselves in the Islamic societies of the frontier people, then an entire generation of Pakistani radicals will have been born.
This is precisely what has happened since December 2001. When Pakistan is inevitably consumed entirely by radical Islamism, a straight line will exist from the American-led war in Afghanistan to that unfortunate day.
The Backdoor Was Open at Tora Bora
The shortcomings of the Bush Administration War in Afghanistan came to a head in December of 2001, when Bin Laden and his most trusted al Qaeda fighters had massed in the mountain redoubts of Tora Bora, which bordered Pakistan. Everyone on the ground knew that Tora Bora would be the make-or-break moment for al Qaeda: either the United States would break al Qaeda there or Bin Laden and his terrorist masterminds would make it to relative safety across the border.
According to Coll, on “November 26 or 27,” a former Delta Force operator who was now a CIA agent, approached the CIA agent in charge of hunting down Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Gary Berntsen, and informed him that, “the small American presence coordinating with Afghan militias was not working.”
At Tora Bora, the light American military and CIA paramilitary footprint would replicate the strategy that had been effective in capturing Kabul: they would embed with mostly local tribal elements and act merely as force multipliers for a predominantly Afghan-led campaign in Tora Bora.
Unfortunately, unlike the Panjshiris or Gul Agha Sherzai in northern Afghanistan, the tribals in eastern Afghanistan where Tora Bora took place did “not have the motivation or history of collaboration with the C.I.A.”
The unwillingness of America’s Afghan allies at Tora Bora (as represented by Haji Zahir and Hazarat Ali) to fully commit to fighting Bin Laden and al Qaeda was evident. Thus, Berntsen “practically screamed” at Washington during the battle to have them deploy thousands of American troops into the valley. The problem was that al Qaeda knew the terrain better and technically outnumbered the American-backed forces in Tora Bora.
The unwillingness of indigenous fighters under Hazarat Ali and Haji Zahir to remain committed to fighting al Qaeda in the hills was a highly complicating factor for the American efforts at Tora Bora. Eventually, unbeknownst to the Americans at Tora Bora, some of the local tribesmen (when they weren’t retreating from their fighting positions in the hills to sleep and eat at their homes down below) brokered a deal with al Qaeda to enact a ceasefire.
This move allowed for scores of al Qaeda fighters to pass through their lines into Pakistan unmolested (Pashtun tribals served as guides for these al Qaeda caravans secreting into the tribal areas of Pakistan).
It is unclear whether or not the indigenous personnel were bribed by al Qaeda or were respecting ancient Afghan rules of warfare and honor when they parleyed with al Qaeda. It was likely both. There are those pesky local customs (which is why I do find it hard to totally fault the George W. Bush Administration for having ignored Mullah Omar’s actions in the run-up the to U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan).
And, while the Bush Administration was right to be concerned about placing too large a military footprint in Afghanistan, had they been willing to deploy a few thousand more troops–or had they asked the Pakistanis to insert forces into the battle earlier than CENTCOM did–it is likely that the locals would have done a better job of conforming to American standards of war.
Instead, the literal handful of American forces on the ground at Tora Bora could not prevent the locals from falling back on their ancient customs and rituals (which Bin Laden and al Qaeda knew well and were skilled at manipulating those customs).
A much larger American (and Pakistani) force was needed to block the Af-Pak border as best as they could. Berntsen and his CIA compatriots understood this well and attempted to relay this belief to their superiors in Washington and at U.S. CENTCOM (under the command of the now-much-maligned Army General Tommy Franks).
At each turn during the battle, however, the American military refused Berntsen’s request, for fear that a massive American military presence in the area might “arouse resentment from Afghan allies,” in the same way that large, lumbering British and, later, Soviet forces caused a massive rebellion against those two armies.
While the American bombing campaign throughout the opening phases of the War in Afghanistan was instrumental, relying solely on American airpower coupled with mostly indigenous forces at Tora Bora was a toxic admixture of risk aversion, corruption, and incompetence. This was something that only those on the ground, embedded with the locals, had a firm understanding of. Washington and the brass simply did not understand.
After action reports from the CIA indicate that Osama Bin Laden was, in fact, cornered. On December 14, 2001, Bin Laden wrote his last will and testament and American signals intelligence (SIGINT) captured Bin Laden addressing his forces via radio; apologizing to them and praising their “heroism,” while at the same time raging against the Americans. In all likelihood, the CIA believe that Bin Laden escaped for Pakistan the next day after those harrowing events.
From that point forward, both the leadership for the Taliban and al Qaeda were housed in Pakistan, where they continued plotting their counterattack against the American-led coalition. For their part, the American-led coalition inexplicably expanded upon its presence in Afghanistan, and essentially became the occupying force it had vowed to avoid becoming, despite the fact that it had completely botched the war from the beginning.
In its own after action assessment, the United States Senate concluded that:
“[A]bout two thousand to three thousand American troops would have been required to make an effective attempt to block Al Qaeda’s escape from Tora Bora. About a thousand soldiers from the Tenth Mountain Division had deployed nearby to Uzbekistan, where they had no significant mission. A thousand Marines sat at Camp Rhino, southeast of Kandahar, with no significant mission. With reinforcements from the U.S. Army Rangers and the 82nd Airborne flying out of the United States, a substantial blocking force was available.”
So consumed with the past experiences of the British and Soviet militaries in Afghanistan, that General Tommy Franks’ deputy, Lieutenant General Michael DeLong reportedly told Steve Coll that,
“We wanted to create a stable country and that was more important than going after Bin Laden at the time. [Our fears were that] this tribal area was sympathetic to Bin Laden.”
The Americans were worried about everything other than winning the War in Afghanistan. The American people never sent our people into the mountains of Afghanistan to “make it a stable country.” That’s not our problem. The American people wanted justice for the 9/11 attacks. Yet, Washington, in all of its infinite wisdom, was consumed with the theoretical post-war settlement that they failed to achieve a single one of their very basic objectives: to destroy al Qaeda and capture or kill Bin Laden with due haste.
General Tommy Franks, the man who led both American invasions into Afghanistan in 2001 and, immediately thereafter, Iraq in 2003, would experience the greatest pile-on in history…with good reason. He was both overmatched and outwitted at every turn, not by the enemy, but by politically-minded bureaucrats who had a bullshit political agenda that in no way comported with the geostrategic realities of the United States.
In the aftermath of the Tora Bora fiasco, Franks argued that he had planned to combine his intensive air campaign at Tora Bora with a massive infusion of Pakistani troops to block the Af-Pak border. Keep in mind, however, that the “Pakistani generals in charge of closing the back door [sealing the Af-Pak border at Tora Bora] had no means to airlift troops high into the Hindu Kush Mountains in the time available.” Franks knew that when he attempted to defend his decision making that day.
Further, according to Steve Coll:
“When [Pakistan] asked the United States for help [airlifting their soldiers up into the Hindu Kush Mountains], they were turned down. Pakistan’s then director-general of military operations, in charge of all day-to-day military movements, later said that he ‘first learnt about Tora Bora from television,’ and that the Pakistani Army command’s reaction to the battle was one of alarm.”
Most troublingly of all:
“Only by December 8 or 9, after days of heavy bombing had taken place, did Franks ask the Pakistan Army’s XI Corps to seal the border. Pakistan had few troop-carrying helicopters. The army did move ground forces into the region by truck, but this only blocked a few routes of escape from Afghanistan.”
It was (if you’ll pardon the expression) already an uphill battle. Excessive amounts of compartmentalization and extreme risk aversion made that battle even more difficult. This was most definitely an avoidable experience.
The now-disgraced former President Musharraf of Pakistan demanded to see General Tommy Franks. When they met in Pakistan, Musharraf asked, “What are you doing? You are flushing guys out and there are one hundred and fifty valleys for them to move through. They are pouring into my country.”
Apparently, Musharraf himself asked Franks to provide Pakistan’s military with enough troop-carrying helicopters so as to transport 60,000 Pakistani soldiers to the Afghan border with due haste. As Coll asserts, “Trapping Al Qaeda’s thousand-odd hard-core survivors inside Afghanistan was as much in Pakistan’s interest as it was in America’s, since Al Qaeda’s migration into Pakistan would wreak havoc.”
Of course, that is precisely what occurred. From late 2001 onward, when the U.S. botched Tora Bora, Pakistan’s politics has become increasingly radicalized. Today, Pakistan’s future is very much in doubt (which is far more concerning than any jihadist living in a cave in Afghanistan).
America’s feckless foreign policy elite in cloistered Washington, D.C. snatched defeat in Afghanistan from the jaws of victory. What began as a smart (though deeply flawed and easily fixable) war devolved into a full-on quagmire. After the failure of the United States to achieve any of its main objectives (total destruction of al Qaeda and the immediate killing or capturing of Bin Laden and his senior lieutenants), the Bush Administration doubled-down on its failure by adding countless more American troops, aid workers, and defense contractors.
The CIA and Special Forces continued their counterterrorism program. But, now, American forces were much more dedicated to turning Afghanistan into Arizona than they were interested in actually defeating the forces that started the war in the first place. Neoconservatives applaud George W. Bush for having ousted the Taliban. Yet, that was not the mission. And, in many respects, while the Taliban are a deplorable lot, had local standards been respected, the United States likely would have been successful in what should have been its true aims.
Today, after 18 years of warfare, the Taliban are on the rise. While the American military can easily defeat any Taliban (or al Qaeda) force it comes up against in battle, the fact is that Pakistan is inextricably linked to the Taliban’s survival (as is Russia, China, and Iran), and the Taliban represent a majority of the Afghan people. Thus, whenever the Trump Administration decides to finally wash its proverbial hands of the quagmire in Afghanistan, the Taliban will be a major player in the postwar environment.
While much has changed in Afghanistan since 2001, much has stayed the same as well. Yes, Hamid Karzai proved to be a corrupt, potentially unstable leader. But, his successor has also embraced corruption and seeks to enter into a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, as Karzai did in October of 2001 at Shah Wali Kot.
The next time some hack tries to argue that the War in Afghanistan was the “good war,” just remember Shakespeare’s old line about life being a “Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Much like his jog through the deserts of Iraq, former President Bush’s War in Afghanistan lost sight of the real enemy: jihadist terror networks in favor of an unpalatable regime (in this case, the Taliban).
After spending all of the money that we have in Afghanistan, how will we feel when the Taliban retakes power in a negotiated settlement?