Two years after the Taliban fell to a US-led coalition, a group of Nato ambassadors landed in Kabul to survey what appeared to be a triumph.
With a senior American diplomat, Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters, with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the US Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a “spent force”.
“Some of us were saying, ‘Not so fast,’” Burns, now the under secretary of state for political affairs, recalled. “A number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear.” But that scepticism had never taken hold in Washington. Since the 2001 war, American intelligence agencies had reported that the Taliban were so decimated they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports.
The American sense of victory had been so robust that the top CIA specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan had long since moved on to the next war, in Iraq.
Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call “the good war” off course.
Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered.
Statements from the White House, including from the president, in support of Afghanistan were resolute, but behind them was a halting, sometimes reluctant commitment to solving Afghanistan’s myriad problems, according to dozens of interviews in the US, at Nato headquarters in Brussels and in Kabul.
As defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed America’s trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, and Hamid Karzai, the administration’s hand-picked president, for a large international force.
Underlying many of the decisions, officials say, was a misapprehension about what Americans would find on the ground in Afghanistan. “The perception was that Afghans hated foreigners and that the Iraqis would welcome us,” said James Dobbins, the administration’s former special envoy for Afghanistan. “The reverse turned out to be the case.”
“I said from the get-go that we didn’t have enough money and we didn’t have enough soldiers,” said Robert Finn, who was the American ambassador to Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. “I’m saying the same thing six years later.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the next ambassador and is now the American ambassador to the UN, said, “I do think that state-building and nation-building, we came to that reluctantly,” adding that “I think more could have been done earlier on these issues.”
And Ronald Neumann, who replaced Khalilzad, said, “The idea that we could just hunt terrorists and we didn’t have to do nation-building, and we could just leave it alone, that was a large mistake.”
Bush had belittled “nation- building” while campaigning for president 18 months earlier. But aware that Afghans had felt abandoned before, including by his father’s administration after the Soviets left, he vowed to avoid the syndrome of “initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure”.
“We’re not going to repeat that mistake,” he said. “We’re tough, we’re determined, we’re relentless. We will stay until the mission is done.”
Within hours of the president’s speech, Rumsfeld announced his own approach at a Pentagon news conference.
“The last thing you’re going to hear from this podium is someone thinking they know how Afghanistan ought to organize itself,” he said. “They’re going to have to figure it out. And we’re there to help.”
But the help was slow in coming. Despite Bush’s promise in Virginia, in the months that followed his April speech, no detailed reconstruction plan emerged from the administration. The stagnation reflected tension within the administration over how large a role the US should play in stabilizing a country after toppling its government, former officials say.
After the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, Powell and Rice, then the national security adviser, argued in confidential sessions that if the US now lost Afghanistan, America’s image would be damaged, officials said. In a February 2002 meeting in the White House Situation Room, Powell proposed that American troops join the small international peacekeeping force patrolling Kabul and help Karzai extend his influence beyond the capital.
But Rumsfeld contended that European countries were unwilling to contribute more troops, said Douglas Feith, then the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy. He said Rumsfeld felt that sending US troops would reduce pressure on Europeans to contribute, and could provoke Afghans’ historic resistance to invaders and divert American forces from hunting terrorists. Rumsfeld declined to comment.
Ultimately, Powell’s proposal died. “The president, the vice-president, the secretary of defence, the national security staff, all of them were sceptical of an ambitious project in Afghanistan,” Haass said. “I didn’t see support.”
As an alternative, officials hatched a loosely organized plan for Afghans to secure the country themselves. The US would train a 70,000-member army. Japan has to disarm some 100,000 militia fighters. Britain would mount an anti-narcotics programme. Italy would carry out changes in the judiciary. And Germany would train a 62,000-member police force.
But that meant no one was in overall command, officials now say. Many holes emerged in the American effort.
Sixteen months after the president’s 2002 speech, the US Agency for International Development, the government’s main foreign development arm, had 61 positions that were lying vacant.
“It was state-building on the cheap, it was a duct tape approach,” recalled Said Jawad, Karzai’s chief of staff then and Afghanistan’s current ambassador to Washington. “It was fixing things that were broken, not a strategic approach.”
Shift of resources to Iraq
In October 2002, Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counter-intelligence centre, visited the new Kuwait City headquarters of Lieutenant General David McKiernan, who was already planning the Iraq invasion. Grenier asked Gen. McKiernan what his intelligence needs would be in Iraq. The answer was simple. “They wanted as much as they could get,” Grenier said.
Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, Grenier said in an interview, “the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq.”
While the CIA replaced officers shifted to Iraq, Grenier said, it did so with younger agents, who lacked the veterans’ knowledge and influence. “I think we could have done a lot more on the Afghan side if we had more experienced folks,” he said.
A former senior official of the Pentagon’s Central Command, which was running both wars, said that as the Iraq planning sped up, the military’s covert Special Mission Units shifted to Iraq.
So did aerial surveillance “platforms” like the Predator, a remotely piloted spy plane armed with Hellfire missiles that had been effective at identifying targets in the mountains of Afghanistan.
“We were economizing in Afghanistan,” said the former official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. “The marginal return for one more platform in Afghanistan is so much greater than for one more in Iraq.”
Change of tactics
On 1 May, hours before Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq, Rumsfeld appeared at a news conference with Karzai in Kabul’s threadbare 19th-century presidential palace. “We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities,” he said.
The Afghanistan announcement was largely lost in the spectacle of Bush’s speech. But the predictions of stability proved no less detached from events on the ground.
A month after his announcement in Kabul, Rumsfeld’s aides presented a plan to the White House aimed at weakening warlords and engaging in state-building in Afghanistan. In some ways, it was the approach Rumsfeld had rejected right after the invasion.
Then another personnel change helped alter Afghanistan policy. Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who was a senior National Security Council official and a special envoy to Iraq exiles, was appointed ambassador to Afghanistan.
A leading neo-conservative, Khalilzad could get Rice or—if need be—Bush on the phone. He had been a counsellor to Rumsfeld and had worked for Dick Cheney when Cheney was the first Bush’s defence secretary. “Zal could get things done,” said Lieutenant General David Barno, a former US military commander in Afghanistan.
When Khalilzad arrived in Kabul in 2003, he brought nearly $2 billion—twice the amount of the previous year—as well as a new military strategy and private experts to intensifying rebuilding.
They started a reconstruction plan that involved the kind of nation-building once dismissed by the administration. Barno expanded “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” to build schools, roads and wells and to win the “hearts and minds” of Afghans.
The teams amounted to a much smaller version of the force Powell had proposed 18 months earlier.
By January 2004, Afghanistan had reached a compromise on a new Constitution. With American backing, Karzai weakened several warlords. In October 2004, Karzai, who had been appointed president, was elected. At the same time, Nato countries steadily sent more troops to Afghanistan and soon Rumsfeld, needing for troops for Iraq, proposed that Nato take over security for all of Afghanistan.
Divisions over strategy
In July 2006, Nato formally took responsibility for security throughout Afghanistan. To Americans and Europeans, Nato is the vaunted alliance that won the Cold War. To Afghans it is little more than a strange, new acronym. And Nato and the Americans are divided over strategy.
In Washington, officials lamented that Nato nations were unwilling to take the kinds of risks and casualties necessary to confront the Taliban. Across Europe, officials complained that the US never focused on reconstruction, and they blamed American forces for mounting air attacks on the Taliban that cause large civilian casualties, turning Afghans against the West.
The debate over how the 2001 victory in Afghanistan turned into the current struggle is well under way.
“Destroying the al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan was an extraordinary strategic accomplishment,” said Robert Blackwill, who was in charge of both Afghanistan and Iraq policy at the National Security Council, “but where we find ourselves now may have been close to inevitable, whether the US went into Iraq or not. We were going to face this long war... as long as we and the Afghan government couldn’t bring serious economic reconstruction to the countryside, and eliminate the Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan.”
Among some current and former officials, a consensus is emerging that a more consistent, forceful American effort could have helped to keep the Taliban and al Qaeda’s leadership from regrouping.
General James Jones, a retired American officer and a former Nato supreme commander, said Iraq caused the US to ”take its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan. He warned that the consequences of failure “are just as serious in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq.”
“Symbolically, it’s more the epicentre of terrorism than Iraq,” he said. “If we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, you’re sending a very clear message to the terrorist organizations that the US, the UN and the 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated.