Why America’s longest war will remain a muddle for the next president. If only Trump or Clinton were paying attention.
Twelve days after 9/11, on September 23, 2001, CIA Islamabad station chief Robert Grenier received a telephone call from his boss, George Tenet. “Listen Bob,” Tenet told him, “we’re meeting tomorrow morning at Camp David to discuss our strategy on Afghanistan. How should we begin?” Over the next three hours, Grenier laid out the U.S. battle plan in an eight-page paper, then sent it on to Washington. President George W. Bush approved Grenier’s memo and gave the task to the CIA, whose mandate was to destroy Al Qaeda, wrench control of Afghanistan from the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden. Tenet handed ops off to CIA veteran Gary Schroen, who then directed his staff to contact the Pentagon to recruit the help of special operations. “Reach out to these guys,” Schroen told an aide. “Let’s talk to the SEALs. Let’s talk to Delta. … Anybody you know, let’s invite.”
But as it turns out, the U.S. military didn’t seem all that interested in Afghanistan. Schroen’s aide came back to report: The special operations people couldn’t decide on who should go.
And so it was that America’s war in Afghanistan, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom (renamed Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in 2014), began as a strategic and tactical muddle on October 7, 2001, when the air campaign began 15 years ago. It remains a muddle to this day. And a muddle—possibly an intractable one—is precisely what the next U.S. president will inherit from Barack Obama, despite the 44th president’s strenuous efforts to pull out of Afghanistan entirely before he left office.
In all, the U.S. has spent over $850 billion on the Afghanistan war, suffered nearly 2,400 dead and the Taliban are not only back in the field, they’ve made steady progress in wresting control of the country from the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government. The Pentagon would like to convince us that the glass is half full: Two weeks ago the Defense Department announced that “U.S. backed forces control 70 percent” of the country. Another way of saying this is that the Taliban control 30 percent—a not insignificant gain from zero, which was the case only eight weeks after Bush’s air campaign began back in 2001. The Pentagon’s estimate is conservative: The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio, who tracks the conflict, recently noted that the Taliban have a heavy influence in fully half the country and their power is expanding.
Is the U.S. winning at all in Afghanistan, even if progress is glacial? For former CIA officer Milt Bearden, the answer is “a little complicated” adding that “everyone goes into Afghanistan fine, the problem is getting out.” Robert Grenier agrees, but he carefully adds his own corollary: “Who’s ‘we’?” he asks, “and what do you mean by ‘win?’” Will Afghanistan ever be a stable country again, or will Washington have to settle for what former Gen. David Petraeus used to call “Afghan Good Enough”?
A key issue, experts say, is weaning the Afghan government and military from its 15-year dependency on the U.S. and NATO. James Clad, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who focused on Afghanistan, says the country’s problems can be fixed, “but they’re the ones who have to fix them.” Clad quotes from Caesar’s Commentaries in describing the tribes of Gaul, where there were “factions not only in all states, and in the cantons and their divisions, but almost in each family.” That, Clad says, “is a perfect description of Afghanistan.” The solution is to “allow Afghanistan to resolve it own problems,” he says, “and end the illusion that we can do it for them.”
That will take time, says Afghanistan expert Paul D. Miller, the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas. In 15 years, he told me, Afghanistan “might look like Colombia of 20 years ago — a failed narco state locked in perpetual war with a low-grade insurgency.” But such an outcome isn’t fated. “A bit more investment and engagement by the U.S. could create a significantly better picture, more political stability, more economic stability, more momentum against the Taliban, AQ, and the drug traffickers,” Miller argues. “But that would require a commander in chief willing to pay attention to America’s longest war and a Congress willing to spend a bit of money on foreign aid, and so far I see no candidate for public office at any level of either party with the competence, leadership and knowledge required for such a minimally successful foreign policy.”
And yet, with just a month to go before the election. Afghanistan has hardly come up at all. “It is a national disgrace that neither of the two major-party nominees for president has even mentioned, much less has a plan for, a war they will inherit if elected,” says Miller.
Fifteen years ago, hopes were somewhat higher, despite the muddled beginnings of the war. Gary Schroen and his team arrived in Afghanistan on September 26, 2001, made contact with the anti-Taliban Uzbek and Tajik leaders of the Northern Alliance and started their forces rolling south. The U.S. Air Force entered the fight on October 7, along with teams of U.S. special operations forces. By early November, the Taliban were on the run and on November 13, the U.S.-backed alliance seized Kabul: the Taliban were defeated, al-Qaeda was on the run and bin Laden was hiding out in the Afghanistan’s southeastern mountains. By any measure this was a victory.
But the Taliban’s 2001 defeat was temporary. In a breathtaking strategic miscalculation, the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq, a war promoted by Donald Rumsfeld within 24 hours of the 9/11 attack. The Taliban regrouped in Pakistan and made their presence felt in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, while the U.S. was slow to respond. At the end of the Bush years, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen warned Congress that the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force was “plagued by shortfalls in capability and capacity.” Mullen was as blunt with Bush. “We’ve taken our eye off the ball,” he told him. By the middle of 2008, the lines tracing the numbers of U.S. casualties in the two wars intersected, with Iraq casualties headed down, and Afghanistan casualties headed up. The University of Texas’ Miller recently wrote that in late 2008, “the war in Afghanistan was going poorly, and Bush knew it.” Bush responded by increasing the number of U.S. troops in the country by some 10,000 in his last months as president.
In the years since, foreign policy commentators have called the shift from Afghanistan to Iraq the “original sin” in the war on terror, forcing multiple re-dos on Afghanistan. Is that true? “Absolutely, yes,” Miller told me in an email exchange. “Resources don’t guarantee victory, but their absence can guarantee defeat. Afghanistan was always under-resourced.”
After he entered the White House in January 2009, Obama sought to rectify things. Having campaigned on a platform that the U.S. needed to refocus its fight in Afghanistan, Obama upped the ante, surging 30,000 additional troops into the country. The new U.S. commander, Stanley McChrystal, headed up the effort, with his first offensive focused on Marja, a town of 50,000 in Helmand Province. On February 13, 2010, U.S., Canadian and British troops took control of Marja, defeated the Taliban and installed what McChrystal dubbed a “government in a box.” At first all went well. Coalition troops built schools, set up health clinics, dug wells and repaired roads. But the government in a box was a disaster: The local official picked by McChrystal as the district governor was despised by the locals and spent most of his time holed up under U.S. protection. Inevitably, he was removed and then, six months later, murdered. (According to his media assistant, McChrystal was not available to be interviewed for this article.)
The result is that, by early 2014, the Taliban were back with a surge of their own, battling the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps and overrunning parts of northerm Helmand. In the Spring of 2015, the Taliban launched Operation Omari, an offensive focused on attacking government administrative centers. Then, in August 2015, the Taliban pummeled Kunduz and Uruzgan provinces. A map of Afghanistan now shows an oil patch stain of loyalties. Taliban forces are now closing in on Kunduz in the north, while three recent Taliban suicide bombings in Kabul have claimed the lives of dozens of people. The blasts came two weeks after an attack by two gunmen at Kabul University that killed 13.
According to a senior U.S. military officer who tracks the conflict for the U.S. Central Command, the recent violence is a part of a tit-for-tat series of incidents that began last May when the U.S. killed Taliban chief Mohammad Mansour in a drone strike on his car in Pakistan. The killing was hailed by Barack Obama as “an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.”
Was it? Now it appears that all the U.S. achieved with the strike was to radicalize the Taliban even more. After Mansour’s death, the Taliban leadership announced that Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada would succeed him. As it turns out, Mansour was a divisive figure, driving hard-liners into more militant groups, like ISIL. Akhundzada, on the other hand, is more extreme. Which is to say the killing of Mansour may not be a “milestone,” but a millstone, with the U.S. stuck with an even more intransigent Taliban than that led by the leader we killed. Mansour’s killing shows that the U.S. remains wedded to the highly suspect “whack-a-mole” strategy of fighting terrorism: an endless round of strikes that actually produces more, and worse, terrorists than it kills.
Says the CIA’s Milt Bearden: “My touchstone is historian Louis Depree, one of the really great thinkers on Afghanistan. … Dupree said there were four mistakes the British made in Afghanistan: They occupied it, put their own hated emir on the throne, knocked down doors and killed people, then stopped paying their friends. We’ve followed the same pattern. It didn’t work for the British, it’s not working for us.” Bearden should know: He served as CIA field officer in Afghanistan from 1986 to 1989, when he directed the U.S. covert war against the Soviet Union, and he has returned to the country numerous times in the wake of 9/11.
The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan appears to hang on hopes that with enough advice and support the Afghan government and military will reach some tipping point of self-sufficiency, and the Taliban will finally get the message. ”The strategy is to advise the Afghan army and continue to fight those, the Taliban and other extremist groups, who pose a threat to us or to the Afghan government,” a senior military officer says. Is it working? “The capacity and the capabilities of the Afghan military are improving every day,” he contends.
The answer is telling: The strategy for Afghanistan is more political than military, with the Obama administration hoping that military force will persuade the Taliban to negotiate a long-term accommodation with the Kabul government. In fact, this military officer notes, the reason that Mansour was targeted by a U.S. drone last May was not simply because he was a terrorist, but because he was viewed as an obstacle to a political solution (even though his successor appears to be even more recalcitrant). Which is to say that the strategy being followed by the White House is diplomacy by drone strike: “We’re signaling the Taliban that they need to choose a leadership that is interested in a political solution,” the officer says, “because, obviously, this conflict isn’t going to be decided on the battlefield.”
This is a limited whack-a-mole strategy: You whack every Taliban unwilling to talk until you find one who will, a message made explicit by Secretary of State John Kerry in the wake of the Mansour assassination. “It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together,” he said.
The strategy is less cynical than it sounds. After years of war in Afghanistan, retired CIA officer Graham Fuller says, the U.S. has failed to bring stability to the country or to eliminate the Taliban as a factor in the country’s future. Fuller points out that that the Taliban “is much more than an Islamist movement; it has in many ways been a surrogate for nationalist Pashtun power.” The Pashtun, numbering from 15 million to 20 million people in southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, view the Kabul government as opposed to their interests, despite the fact that the U.S. was careful to support a Pashtun, Hamid Kharzai, as Afghanistan’s first post-9/11 president.
“The Pashtun lost out big when the Taliban government was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001,” Fuller says, so that “inclusion of mainstream Taliban within the new government is essential to future Afghan stability.”
That the majority of the Pashtun have sided with the Taliban against the Kabul government is not a surprise to Robert Grenier. As the Uzbek- and Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance descended on Kabul in 2001, Grenier hoped their offensive could be slowed enough to enable him to persuade the Pashtuns to join a new government. Schroen agreed, fearing that a new conflict would start when the Pashtuns bumped up against the northern tribes. “They don’t like each other, they don’t get along well,” he said at the time. “We didn’t understand the south like we did the north, so we ended up not really winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.”
And 15 long years passed. Now all that is left, apparently, is for the Afghans to figure out for themselves how to win hearts and minds.