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.