How America Lost Its Way in Afghanistan


“Respectful of the history of Afghanistan,” Malkasian writes, Rumsfeld “was aware that American troops could upset the Afghan people and spark an uprising. He wanted to outsource to Afghan partners and get it over with as soon as possible. Looking back, he was far-sighted. Yet his real decisions cut off opportunities to avoid the future he feared so much.

So Rumsfeld ignored pleas to include the Taliban in the post-war settlement at the end of 2001, despite Karzai’s support for the idea. Thus, it sanctioned overly aggressive counterterrorism operations that alienated ordinary Afghans and quickly spurred former Taliban supporters to resort to violence again. And so he and Bush turned a blind eye to the repressive actions of the Karzai government and its warlord allies.

More importantly, Rumsfeld neglected to bolster the Afghan security forces. He called a January 2002 request from the interim Afghan government for $ 466 million a year to train and equip 200,000 troops, he described as “crazy.” The Afghans reduced their demand, then reduced it further, until Rumsfeld agreed to a cap of 50,000 troops. Even then, little was accomplished, as Rumsfeld, increasingly concerned with planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, insisted that the costs of training and housing recruits be minimized and that wages are kept low. By early 2004, only 6,000 Afghan army soldiers had been trained; by 2006, when Rumsfeld resigned, the figure had risen to 26,000, still far too little to counter the major and successful offensive the Taliban launched that year.

The offensive marked a turning point, showing in blunt terms the immense challenge the Bush administration had set itself. The United States had entered a country it did not understand, a country that had baffled the great powers in the past, and it had done so without a clear long-term strategy. His client government in Kabul was beset by corruption and the lack of broad popular support, while the Taliban were dedicated and resourceful and able to travel to shrines in neighboring Pakistan to rest and plan. In addition, from the start, US leaders were concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Afghanistan has become a secondary spectacle. (Robert Gates, who succeeded Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary in 2007, recalled that he had three priorities when he took office: “Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.”)

Yet even though American planners admitted – behind closed doors – that they were losing in Afghanistan, they maintained the optimistic public statements. “Lies and Spin,” Whitlock headlines a particularly devastating chapter, citing general after general telling reporters that the trend lines were pointing in the right direction, that the enemy was on the ropes, that victory would come soon. Never mind the plethora of intelligence assessments showing otherwise – the Taliban, far from faltering, was expanding their reach, increasingly confident they would win out in the end. Or as a Taliban commander said to an American official in 2006, looking a lot like a North Vietnamese counterpart from around 1966: “You have all the clocks but we have all the time.”

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