Commentary Magazine


Did We Fail in Afghanistan?

President Bush and his advisers have repeatedly stated that our goal in Iraq is to remove a vicious regime from power and replace it with a stable democratic government pursuing a responsible foreign policy. That is also what we have tried to do in Afghanistan, a very different country from Iraq but one where our objectives have been the same. It is increasingly clear, however, that in Afghanistan our efforts to bring stability have encountered serious problems. A reconsideration of our war there is thus an essential precondition for success in our next conflict.

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The U.S. war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, when bombs from about 40 aircraft and 50 submarine-launched Tomahawk missiles struck targets with the objective of giving allied forces undisputed control of Afghanistan’s airspace. Within the first few days, these strikes had destroyed the Taliban’s air-defense capability and damaged its military airfields. Thereafter, the U.S. continued to hit command-and-control targets and terrorist training centers while also attacking Taliban and al Qaeda troop, vehicle, and artillery concentrations. In the meantime, U.S. forces dropped tens of thousands of food rations to demonstrate to the people of Afghanistan that the strikes were aimed not at the civilian populace but exclusively at the Taliban and al Qaeda.

On October 19, the first U.S. Special Forces A-Team linked up with forces under the command of General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Now the war began to change character as, beginning October 21, air strikes were called in directly in support of Northern Alliance troops. Generally, the Afghans would indicate what targets they wanted hit and American soldiers would identify the targets, holding laser pointers on them for our smart bombs to home in on. Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were shocked by the extreme precision of these strikes—so unlike their experience fighting the Soviets during the 1980′s—and the front lines began to collapse rapidly. Dostum’s forces, most of them on horseback, fought a series of engagements culminating on November 10 with the capture of Mazare-Sharif.

The collapse accelerated from that point. The capital city of Kabul was captured without a fight on November 11. Operations then focused on expanding control of the country to the south and west, including the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and reducing a pocket of several thousand Taliban and al Qaeda fighters trapped in the northern city of Konduz. The struggle in the southwest continued until December 7, when the Taliban leadership abandoned Kandahar and fled.

The fall of Kandahar, which ended Taliban rule in Afghanistan, also concluded the first major phase of the war. Since that time, American forces have been engaged in hunting down remnants of Taliban and al Qaeda forces that have gone into hiding around the country, especially in the mountainous areas along the Pakistani border. Twice, U.S. forces have located substantial enemy forces in that area and given battle: in December 2001, when U.S. and Afghan forces struck a cave complex near Tora Bora, and in March 2002, when there was a large-scale, joint U.S.-Afghan attack dubbed Operation Anaconda. Although there have been no operations on a similar scale since then, fighting continues, most recently in a complex of caves near Spinbaldak in the southeast.

The received wisdom is that the first phase of the war (October 7 through December 7) was overwhelmingly successful—and, some have claimed, ushered in a whole new way of waging war. In particular, it is said that the use of limited numbers of ground forces, working with indigenous fighters to designate targets for precision-guided munitions fired from American aircraft and ships, provides a model that can and should be copied in future conflicts. Although others have questioned whether this “Afghan model” can be generalized to other theaters and circumstances, its success in Afghanistan itself has gone virtually unquestioned.

Criticism has focused, instead, on the second phase of the struggle. The picture of our military actions in the period after December 7 is in fact complicated. The battle for the caves near Tora Bora had but limited success, while operation Anaconda is considered to have fared better. But what has come under consistent question is the stability of the political situation, and even the degree to which we have achieved or can now hope to achieve our fundamental political objectives in Afghanistan. Warlords are said to control significant portions of the country, persistent violence may be undermining the emergence of a legitimate order under President Hamid Karzai, and al Qaeda operatives are reported to have set up new training camps in eastern Afghanistan. What is more, the locus of the problem seems to have shifted to the tribal areas in Pakistan, where, it is believed, many fighters have taken refuge and have begun reestablishing their organization.

An important obstacle to any understanding of the conflict is that the two major phases of the war have been considered independently. Specialists in military affairs study the campaign of October-December 2001 plus Operation Anaconda, largely ignoring their implications for the subsequent political turmoil. Students of Afghanistan’s political situation, on the other hand, tend to ignore the significance of the way in which the military campaign was itself conducted. Neither approach by itself will do.

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America attacked Afghanistan in order to achieve three major objectives. First and foremost, as senior members of the Bush administration stressed at the time, we hoped to destroy al Qaeda forces there, as part of our global campaign to uproot that organization completely. Second, we wanted to capture or kill Osama bin Laden (although we also said the success of the operation did not depend on this). Third, we wanted to decapitate and drive from power the Taliban government, which many believed was “joined at the hip” to al Qaeda. The overall goal, identified by the President himself on October 7, was to create a situation in which Afghanistan could no longer serve as a haven and training base for al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.

The critical decision not to inject American ground forces into the theater in any but the smallest numbers was made early on. There were several bases for it. Among them was a fear of American casualties, itself resting on an overestimate of the abilities of the ragtag Taliban forces and the small number of al Qaeda fighters and, no doubt, on an (erroneous) understanding both of our own experience in Vietnam and of the Soviets’ debacle in Afghanistan. Another fear, also drawn from the Soviet experience, was that the presence of large numbers of American troops might excite Afghan patriotism and religious zeal and generate a country-wide guerrilla war. Still another element had to do with the perceived need to start operations hastily, combined with considerations of geography.

For a variety of reasons, Bush was determined to act as rapidly as possible. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and getting permission from its neighbors for basing aircraft or even for prolonged over-flights was not an easy matter. Moreover, some of the Army units thought to be most appropriate for larger-scale combat in Afghanistan, like the 101st Air Assault Division, were difficult to transport rapidly. There was also a belief in some quarters that the Army’s “excessively heavy” ground forces were altogether of limited relevance in modern, fast-moving crises. This, together with pessimistic estimates of the time needed to get large numbers to the country and of what they might do once there, sidelined any serious consideration of an early introduction of substantial ground forces.

In the event, the President decided on a plan proposed by the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet. This involved inserting CIA operatives into Afghanistan with fistfuls of money to support indigenous groups hostile to the Taliban and to bribe the many tribal leaders who were for sale. The plan seemed to offer the best of all possible worlds. The war would be fought by Afghans—which meant, on the one hand, that there would be few if any American casualties and, on the other, that it would not “feel” like a foreign invasion. Everything could be done quickly, since the Northern Alliance already had fighters in the field and the CIA already had agents in the theater. And it was militarily feasible. With the extensive use of American precision-guided munitions, rebel forces could easily topple the unpopular Taliban, as long as the war did not turn into a patriotic struggle of Afghans against Americans.1

Still, the Tenet plan did run into a number of early snags. It proved trickier than expected to obtain even limited basing rights in the countries along Afghanistan’s northern border, thus delaying the onset of the bombing campaign. It also took longer than anticipated to get Special Forces A-Teams into the country to help direct the attacks of our ships and aircraft. The first team did not link up with the Northern Alliance until October 19, and the first coordinated airstrike did not take place until two days later. As a result, there was a period in mid- and late October in which we seemed to be making no progress and during which, as many readers will recall, it began to be murmured at home that we were entering a “quagmire.”

But as soon as sufficient assets were in place, and our allies on the ground were confident we would support them, the end came very quickly. Although al Qaeda forces themselves fought fanatically, many of the Taliban troops lost what little motivation they possessed once they had been driven out of their defensive positions and into the open.

We were thus able to remove the Taliban from power relatively easily, cheaply, and quickly. But removing the Taliban had been only one of our objectives. Our other and arguably more important goals were seriously impaired.

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One of those goals was to eliminate al Qaeda forces from Afghanistan. A plan for accomplishing that should have involved encircling them wherever they concentrated their forces and destroying them in place. Every effort should have been made to deny them the ability to maneuver and withdraw, since it was well known that Afghanistan’s topography offered many places in which they could hide.

The trouble was that our allies’ forces were concentrated almost exclusively in the northern part of the country, and thus were unavailable to prevent fleeing Taliban and, more important, al Qaeda fighters from taking refuge in the extremely rough terrain south and east of Kabul along the Pakistan border. And in any case such an operation was well beyond the capacity (or for that matter the inclination) of our indigenous allies to conduct. It could only have been undertaken by American ground forces, using the superior mobility provided by their helicopters and, to a lesser extent, vehicles. From the account given in Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, it seems not to have occurred to Bush’s cabinet to address this issue until the fall of Kabul was already imminent, when it was too late.

Another drawback of the war plan was that it left the U.S. politically beholden to its indigenous allies, primarily the Northern Alliance. Although the majority of Afghans are Pashtun tribesmen, the Northern Alliance comprised minority Uzbeks and Tajiks. Ethnic tensions in Afghanistan are a complex matter, but under any circumstances it would be difficult to imagine a stable Afghan state in which Pashtuns were ruled over by Tajiks and Uzbeks. Since we had neither a ground presence in the country nor any real political base among the Pashtuns themselves, our leverage was severely restricted. The result was the formation of a government composed of a Pashtun president, Hamid Karzai, the head of one of the two Pashtun groups that had provided significant help in the fight against the Taliban in the south, and Tajiks in almost all of the other most important positions. This wobbly arrangement has gravely compromised Karzai’s efforts to form a political order that is widely felt to be legitimate.

Worse yet, many of the principal leaders in the Northern Alliance are radical Islamists themselves, people who opposed the Taliban for political and other reasons but who, if left to their own devices, would not establish a state that we would find suitable. We have been obliged to try to force some of these extremists from power.

An even more serious flaw was that the indigenous army, though strong enough to push an unpopular regime from power with American support, was not and is not strong enough to establish control over the country. Indeed, as I have already suggested and as numerous reports confirm, Karzai’s forces would seem to control little beyond the immediate environs of Kabul, while much of the rest of the country is under the sway of warlords who are using the money given to them by the CIA to maintain their own private palatinates. The measures that we took in support of the “Afghan model” of war have thus ended up exacerbating the security challenge to the new government.

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It is here that the seductive lure of airpower played an especially mischievous role—and, in the aftermath of Afghanistan, has continued to obscure planning for future conflicts. According to one enthusiast, the war in Afghanistan “proved the validity of a concept: U.S. and allied airpower can work efficiently with local ground forces to accomplish the combatant commander’s objectives” (emphasis added). Another student of the war has put the point more soberly: “Many now believe that [the] Afghan model could be used elsewhere with comparable effect,” the main “elsewhere” being, of course, Iraq. This same writer adds: “Many see it more broadly still—as a new ‘American way of war’ applicable across a wide range of future conflict types.”

Proponents of this new “American way of war” cite a number of benefits, some of which we have already rehearsed. The Afghan model—that is, the combination of special-operations forces, precision-guided munitions, and an indigenous ally—minimizes the exposure of American soldiers to danger, and is thought also to minimize local opposition to any American-led action. It reduces the lag time between a decision to overthrow a regime and the beginning of operations. It avoids any danger of a Vietnam-style morass, since, unlike slow-moving and unwieldy ground forces, air and naval forces flying from nearby bases can fly away again easily if an operation goes poorly. It maximizes our advantages in technology, advantages that lie not only in our long-range precision weapons but also in the communications systems that connect the soldier on the ground to the missile-launcher hundreds of miles away. Finally, it allows us to choose targets discriminately, thus reducing the risk of civilian casualties, and to increase or decrease pressure as the overall situation warrants.

There is no gainsaying the values that underlie this approach or the worthiness of its aims. It is undoubtedly desirable to avoid putting our young men and women in harm’s way as much as we can, to tailor the use of force to our objectives as precisely as we can, and to begin our operations as rapidly and end them as expeditiously as we can. There is also little question that this approach did, in fact, work spectacularly well in Afghanistan—at least in taking down an enemy government quickly and at the lowest possible cost in American lives.

But, to repeat, simply removing the Taliban from power was never our sole aim, or indeed our main aim—and the way we achieved that aim compromised our other, more important ones. The military operation, although it succeeded at a very low cost and in a very short time, failed to establish a situation conducive to achieving America’s longer-term objectives in Afghanistan, or for that matter in the war on terror generally. Nor was this result accidental; it reveals a problem that lies at the very core of the Afghan model.

Unless we are dealing with a situation of outright civil war, in which the side we are backing has already established a significant military force in its own right, the Afghan model virtually ensures that the state in which we are intervening will collapse into chaos once the enemy government falls. It is not possible, especially in the confusing circumstances surrounding such a war, rapidly to recruit and train an army reliably loyal to the new regime. Although this may not present a hindrance to overthrowing the enemy government—our enormous advantage in airpower can tip the scales in favor of even very weak indigenous rebel ground forces—we cannot continue to use airpower to support that force as it attempts to gain control of the country against bandits, regional warlords, or rival schismatics.

In sum, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, the absence of American ground forces deprives us of the ability to control political conditions during and immediately after the fall of the enemy government. We are unable to intervene quickly to push the situation in the direction of greater stability, to disarm opponents of the new government peacefully and without killing them, or to ensure that our objectives—such as, in this case, the rooting out of al Qaeda operatives—are pursued aggressively and in a timely manner. The use of American ground forces in substantial numbers from the outset is absolutely essential—not so much to win the war as to establish the necessary preconditions for winning the peace.

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What would the early introduction of ground forces into Afghanistan have accomplished? When a large number of al Qaeda fighters were found to be concentrating in caves near Tora Bora, American airpower, even directed by Special Forces teams on the ground in support of local allies, proved unable to trap and destroy them—hundreds of fighters, almost certainly including the top leadership, got away. A relatively small number of U.S. ground forces—on the order of several battalions of helicopter-borne infantry—could have set up ambush and blocking positions along the obvious lines of retreat, and along the high ground dominating secondary routes as well. Although some would certainly have slipped away anyway, we could have prevented the large-scale escapes that actually occurred and perhaps have captured or killed a substantial portion of the al Qaeda leadership now at large.

U.S. forces deployed rapidly around Kabul could also have served as guardians of the gates of the capital, able either to take the city themselves or to allow it to be taken by an international force or, if we so decided, by the Northern Alliance. In the event, we had no option but to allow the Northern Alliance to seize the capital (although the President, Colin Powell, and General Tommy Franks vainly tried to prevent this) and stake a claim to the subsequent governance of the country. Other American forces would have played valuable roles in trapping and killing al Qaeda and seizing critical spots elsewhere throughout the country.

All in all, one Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) plus an Army division and perhaps a little more would have been adequate to trap and eliminate concentrations of al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and provide the essential leverage we needed to control the development of the political situation. Nor, it is perhaps necessary to add, would the deployment of such a force have prevented us from contemplating war against Iraq: the Marines maintain three MEF’s and the Army ten active combat divisions, several of which, like the 10th Mountain Division, would have been suitable for combat in Afghanistan but not in Iraq.

Could we have sent these forces early enough and in sufficient numbers? The answer to both questions is certainly yes. The main objections to doing so, remember, were the fear of casualties, the fear of inciting a patriotic Afghan resistance, and the difficulties of rapid transportation. All three could have been readily countered.

There was, in fact, no reason to suspect that the Taliban or al Qaeda could inflict significant casualties on properly equipped American ground forces, especially if those forces were supported, as they certainly would have been, by an air campaign as intense, as precise, and as lethal as the one that was actually fought. If, under such circumstances, the poorly equipped and trained Northern Alliance forces were able to overrun the Taliban and al Qaeda defenses in three weeks with minimal casualties, the highly trained and superbly equipped American ground forces could have done at least as well.

Nor was it a question, as some warned, of sending ground forces into cave complexes where they would be decimated. The issue was: could we establish blocking positions along the lines of retreat from those cave complexes so as to prevent al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from escaping from the bombing, as they did at Tora Bora and, to a lesser extent, during Operation Anaconda? It is hardly likely that disorganized and dazed refugees running for their lives from precise bombing attacks could have done significant harm to protected American ground forces waiting for them in ambush.

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As for the possibility of an Afghan resistance, that was a superficially more valid concern; after all, it is precisely what happened in the 1980′s following the Soviet invasion. A more thoughtful look, however, reveals the utter inappropriateness of the analogy.

Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in late December 1979 on behalf of a Communist leader, Babrak Karmal. The Soviets had brought this leader back from abroad to take the place of another Communist leader, Hafizullah Amin, whose policies they did not like and whom they had therefore liquidated. The intervention itself followed a period of serious revolutionary disturbance against the local government, which in word and deed had made known its intention to root out Islam, to destroy existing landlord-tenant relationships throughout the country, and to alter the traditional status of Afghan women. In other words, the government the Soviets were supporting had, in effect, declared war on almost all of Afghan society with the exception of the tiny fraction of the population that agreed with it.

Nothing in this scenario paralleled what America was about to do in Afghanistan. We were intervening on behalf of a rebel movement that had exhausted its ability to continue fighting against a government generally known to be extremely and increasingly unpopular. We were committed to no ideology; on the contrary, in our public statements we stressed that we had no stake in how the Afghans organized themselves following the war, as long as they established a stable government that did not support terrorists—conditions that the overwhelming majority of Afghans of every ethnicity were perfectly willing to accept. Instead of the fictive government of Babrak Karmal, we would have been fighting with the support of Northern Alliance and southern Pashtun forces (like Hamid Karzai’s group) that had already openly opposed the Taliban regime. To the extent that Americans had a reputation in Afghanistan prior to this operation, it was not as a previously aggressive neighbor but as an ally who had helped to defeat the Soviets in the first place. Finally, instead of entering the country with a conscript army demonstrating contempt for Afghans and committing wanton civilian atrocities, America’s highly professional armed forces would have distinguished themselves for fair dealing and humanitarianism. The Soviet troops laid mines in fields and gave explosive toys to children. American troops hand out food and medical supplies.

Similarly specious was the argument that we could not have gotten ground forces to Afghanistan in time. Planning for operations against the Taliban began on September 13. Bombs began falling 24 days later. To judge from previous recent campaigns, it should have been possible to put a substantial portion of a Marine Expeditionary Force on the ground in Afghanistan within that amount of time. Such a force could then readily have established one or more airbases, either by seizing existing ones or by constructing hasty airstrips, to accommodate a subsequent influx of troops and equipment from the 101st Air Assault Division and its parent XVIII Airborne Corps. Considering that the major ground push did not, in fact, begin until sixteen days after the bombing began, or 40 days after the initial decision to start the operation, there is every reason to believe that we could have had soldiers in place in critical parts of the country to cut off al Qaeda escape routes.

Why, then, was this not done? I have already discussed the paralyzing grip on the imagination exercised by the capabilities of airpower. It is also true that, before any alternative plan could have been adopted, ground-force commanders themselves would have needed to break free of the traditional belief that military operations must not begin until all forces that may eventually be necessary are “set” in position. An Afghanistan operation would not have looked like that—forces would have entered the theater piecemeal and have been deployed in relatively small units, probably battalion-sized (1,000 to 1,500 men depending on the unit) or even smaller. Considering the weakness of the enemy we faced, and, yes, our unmatched control of the air, there was no real danger in such an operation; but the objections to it would have had to be overcome.

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We have not failed in Afghanistan, but neither have we succeeded. By waiting to deploy ground forces until almost all of the major Taliban strongholds had fallen and until the political situation, as well as the prospect of catching and destroying al Qaeda refugees, was already slipping out of our grasp, we left ourselves a very hard row to hoe. The war against al Qaeda continues, in circumstances that render it extremely difficult for us to break the organization up, and it is far from certain that we will be able to establish a stable government that can, on its own, prevent the country from serving again as a terrorist training base.

This partial victory was an opportunity missed. Al Qaeda did not expect that we would actually attack Afghanistan or that, if we did, the results would be so devastating. They had concentrated a great deal of personnel and resources there, thereby giving us the best chance we would ever have to smash their organization definitively. Now we have to hunt them down all over the world while still maintaining a significant military presence in Afghanistan, even as we prepare for war with Iraq. In our present geopolitical environment, such partial victories are unacceptably costly.

There is reason to think that the Bush administration will avoid many of the same mistakes in the forthcoming conflict in Iraq. Ground forces in sufficient numbers will certainly exist there, and, after a period in which enthusiasts of the Afghan model have seemed to be winning the day in Washington, a more balanced approach may be prevailing. This suggests that we will be in an excellent position to ensure that we actually achieve all of our major objectives in Iraq: the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the complete accounting for and destruction of his programs to produce weapons of mass destruction, the reintegration of Iraq’s terrorized minorities into the country, and the establishment of a peaceful and stable regime.

But there is also room for concern. The problem in Afghanistan was not simply that we failed to use ground forces. Rather, that decision was itself emblematic of a larger failure to recognize that the shape and nature of a military operation establishes for good or ill the preconditions for the peace to follow. It is possible, as we saw both in Afghanistan and in our earlier campaign against Iraq in 1991, to design military operations that are brilliantly successful from a strictly operational point of view but that do not achieve and may actually hamper the achievement of larger political goals. That is the trap we must now avoid.

The American military does not, by nature, see things this way. Consider, for one famous example, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to race for Berlin at the end of World War II, a refusal based on his feeling that such an operation would entail an unnecessary expenditure of American lives when the war had already been “won.” In more recent times, fears of Vietnam-style “quagmires” and Somalia-style “mission creep” have further undermined the military’s willingness to consider the political dimensions of conflict, and have driven an ever wider wedge between the larger goals we are pursuing and the military campaigns we design, nominally, to achieve them.

The enthusiasm for airpower, which has beguiled military and civilian thinkers alike, has exacerbated this trend. Airpower by itself can play only the smallest of roles in creating conditions on the ground advantageous for one or another political outcome. Airpower can blow things up; but in wars in which we aim to replace one regime with another, there is simply no substitute for being there, with boots on the ground, in support of a plan that has been thought all the way through. Otherwise, we run the risk of winning still more battles and losing the war.

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Footnotes

1 It should be noted that the armed forces did not, on the whole, share the CIA’s confidence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly commented on the “toughness” of the enemy and hinted that active combat might stretch well into 2002.

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