Sunday, August 12, 2007

New York Times on Failure in Afghanistan

In today's New York Times, reporters David Rohde and David Sanger published a retrospective overview of how the Bush administration has failed in Afghanistan. While the article contains no revelations to those following the issue closely, some parts of the account have not appeared in print in such a prominent place before. The article provides a comprehensive overview of how, in the words of the NYT's headline, "The 'Good War' Went Bad."

The record of misjudgments is as familiar as it is complete: believing that the quick collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001 constituted a resounding "victory"; a refusal to enlarge the international security presence to secure the country; a failure to follow up on boastful talking points about a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan with any strategic planning, coordinated leadership, adequate funding, or effective implementation; neglect and denial for years of the Pakistan military's permissive (at best) attitude toward the Taliban leadership; and, like a shiny silk thread of failure woven through the entire fabric, the constant diversion of military, political, intelligence, economic, and leadership resources to Iraq. As news reporters, the authors decline to make the obvious observation: more attention and resources from this administration meant a more comprehensive and disastrous failure in Iraq than in Afghanistan.

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. (Note: I have a personal bias in that I was involved in these UN efforts as an occasional adviser or consultant).

The article also catalogues the efforts of both military and diplomatic professionals and some political appointees (notably Zalmay Khalilzad) to change these policies. The willingness of all former US ambassadors and several former US and NATO military commanders to go on the record in the New York Times in criticism of the administration's policies indicates how general is now the recognition that US policies were wrong, both in allocating global priorities and in planning for Afghanistan.

What the article does not analyze is the strategic and ideological doctrines of the administration, and in particular its radical misunderstanding of the threat from al-Qaeda and the challenges in Afghanistan, that led to these policy failures. The administration has tried as usual to shift blame to others, by claiming that the non-US "lead nations" in security sector reform performed inadequately and that NATO troop contributors have placed too many limitations on their troops. While these charges contain elements of truth, they ignore that the flawed "lead-donor" system resulted from the Bush administration's ideologically motivated refusal in 2002 either to lead or authorize others (such as the UN) to lead a well-coordinated and resourced state-building effort.

Complaints about NATO troop contributors ignore the political reality that allies are reluctant to sacrifice their soldier's lives to a conflict greatly exacerbated by Washington's own mistakes. This same dynamic is being played out again as the administration pushes for a disastrous policy of accelerated poppy eradication, and allies whose troops may die in the resulting resistance push back.

In future posts I will analyze the failure of the US and other international actors to define goals and hence to design a strategy for Afghanistan. The failure to define what we are trying to accomplish or to analyze what it would require to accomplish it results in politically motivated talking points on "success" that consist mostly of lists of genuine but unsustainable achievements. This strategic failure, which, alas, goes far beyond the upper reaches of the Bush administration, has led to policies being enacted piecemeal on drugs, Pakistan, Iran, reconstruction/development, and the Taliban. I will analyze the concept of "success" in Afghanistan (is the glass half full or half empty, or what?) and each of these particular subjects in subsequent posts.

26 comments:

Christiane said...

One doesn't fight terrorism with a conventional war. It was wrong to attack Afghanistan in the first place, so how can something good come out of something which was already wrong in the premises ?

Many opponents to the Iraq war pretend that it diverted ressources from the fight in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan was a wrong war, just like Iraq was. The fact that Bush obtained the agreement of the UNSC doesn't change anything to this fact.

The Afghans were in ruins both economically and litterally : why would anyone thing that bombing them would bring anything good to them ? they were just sacrified to the desire of revenge of the Americans.

Tony said...

The problem is not simply one of not knowing what "winning" means in a particular context. The larger problem is one of no concept of what the role of the United States in the world should be. Are we the world's policeman? Do we defend primarily against existential threats to the United States. Do we defend only like minded polities? Are we aggressively promoting democracy in the world (while degrading it in the U.S)? Until these questions are clear in everyone's mind it is difficult to get to the issue of winning or losing except by simply passively accepting the statements of socicopathic liars (as we seem to have been doing).
Anthony J. Van Patten

Anonymous said...

The Taliban regime was intertwined with al-Qaeda. The regime had to be ousted; there was nothing wrong with that premise.

The driving point of the NYT article is that the effort is failing from the lack of commitment to the fight in Afghanistan. A lack of interest in defeating the Taliban and bringing stability to Afghanistan, in favor of neo-con oil interests in Iraq. No one is pretending anything. A serious commitment would've meant a commitment to rebuild Afghanistan economically. More than just "bombing".

- Inkan1969

larue said...

If folks would please google up, there was a gas pipeline thru Afghanistan. And the USA was cut out of it. This was PRE 911.

Cheney went to Afghanistan, and the Taliban told him to fuck off, basically. He told them, yer dead meat.

911 happened.

We creamed Afghani plans for the gas pipeline, which if I recall correctly, had Russian, French, German and other interests involved. But NOT US interests.

And so, we kicked the SHIT outta Afghan's Taliban, and the pipeline is STILL to be reconsidered.

THIS is the reason we went into Afghan, NOT to get Bin Laden.

We didn't want the gas line to fall into Russian control in any way, shape or form. And we didn't wanna get CUT OUT of the deal.

This is the legacy of our country.

It sucks, but, please people, let's focus on the reality, not some pseudo fuck apostate given jive that we are ACTUALLY fighting a GWOT. We are not.

We're fighting to control resources, and prevent them from being acquired by our world stage competitors.

And it's an evil, global domination of a fight that I don't support.

Harumph.

Anonymous said...

Kindly address the security interests of Pakistan, which opposes an Iran-friendly Kabul. Also, I wonder if the nuke deal with India may have caused the ISI to start refinancing the Taliban. After all, they are a pro-Pakistan paramilitary force.

Anonymous said...

Assessing the Mess in Afghanistan

http://harpers.org/archive/2007/08/hbc-90000861

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 US 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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