In a ‘graveyard of empires’

The Daily

October 7, 2011

For those of us of a certain age, it seems like only yesterday. But it’s been 10 years since the start of the Afghanistan war. Circa Oct. 7-8, 2001 — less than a month after the attacks of 9/11 — U.S. aircraft began bombing Taliban positions in Afghanistan. Little more than a month later, on Nov. 13, the Northern Alliance, with the aid of CIA and Special Forces advisers, entered Kabul. On Dec. 22, the suave, English-speaking Hamid Karzai was sworn in as head of a pro-Western provisional government.

The only event that marred those heady days was Osama bin Laden’s escape at the battle of Tora Bora in early December. But, considering how badly American forces were supposed to have fared in “the graveyard of empires” — on Oct. 31, R.W. “Johnny” Apple had published a “news analysis” in the New York Times titled “Afghanistan as Vietnam” — events had appeared to work out miraculously well.

So what happened? Why has Afghanistan turned into one of the longest wars in American history? It has already lasted longer than the direct fighting by U.S. troops in Vietnam, its length exceeded only by the conflicts against the Indians from the early 1600s to 1890.

In a nutshell, the initial U.S. victory was undone, like so many others before it (e.g., Douglas MacArthur’s push to the Yalu River in the early days of the Korean War), by complacency. Having seen how rapidly the Taliban fell, President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the Central Command, decided there was no need for a sustained U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Sending in large numbers of American troops, they figured, would only fan resentment against foreign occupiers.

As a result, there were fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops — roughly two brigades — in all of Afghanistan until 2004. Their mission was limited to chasing the remnants of al Qaeda. “Nation-building,” a term the Bush administration associated with the hated Clinton administration, was strictly forbidden. The number of U.S. military personnel grew only gradually, reaching a peak of 32,000 by the time Bush left office in January 2009. (There were also 32,000 other foreign forces, mainly from NATO, but most operated under caveats that severely limited effectiveness.) Nor did the U.S. do much to ramp up Afghanistan’s own security forces. The army and police grew from just 6,000 personnel in 2003 to 163,000 by 2009 — an improvement, but hardly adequate numbers to police a country of 30 million people.

This left a security vacuum that allowed the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other insurgent groups to stage a resurgence. Operating from secure bases in Pakistan, they steadily increased their attacks after 2005 until their shadow governments were in virtual control of eastern and southern Afghanistan. By the summer of 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander, was warning that the situation was “deteriorating” and that the war could be lost within 12 months unless reinforcements were sent.

Expanding a build-up ordered in Bush’s last days in office, President Obama responded to the military’s requests by tripling U.S. forces. There are now 100,000 American troops on the ground. Since last summer, they have been implementing a counterinsurgency campaign — which involves a considerable dose of “nation-building” — principally in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south. Working with them have been Afghan forces whose growth has been considerably accelerated with U.S. assistance: The police and army together now number more than 300,000.

This increased commitment has not produced miracles, but it has made it possible to drive the Taliban out of districts in southern Afghanistan that they had dominated for years. I have seen this progress for myself during regular visits to Afghanistan: Areas where coalition and Afghan forces could not have gone without a major firefight a few years ago are now relatively “permissive.” Local government officials have returned, and the Taliban have not been able to fight their way back in.

Yet we are now in danger of throwing away this hard-won progress. Obama has announced that 30,000 surge troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer, making it difficult, if not impossible, to extend security gains from the south to the wild east that borders Pakistan. Obama appears to think we have done enough and that with bin Laden gone, there is no need for a massive troop commitment. In this respect, he echoes the hubris of his predecessor, who also thought Afghanistan would do fine on its own. By focusing too narrowly on targeting just a few terrorists, Bush allowed the Taliban to stage a comeback. It is sobering to think that history may be repeating itself.