The initial decision to strike back after the 9/11 attacks is easy to understand. History, however, will ask not why the West invaded Afghanistan, but why did it stay so long?
Why, a decade after 9/11, were there still 140,000 coalition troops on the ground? Why were there so many civilian casualties in May and June 2011 — more than in any preceding recorded month? Why had the United States been in Afghanistan for twice the length of World War II?
The conventional answer to all these questions is that Afghanistan still poses an existential threat to global security. In March 2009, presenting his strategy for a surge in troop numbers, President Obama said, “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban ... that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”
These fears are reinforced by a domino theory that if Afghanistan falls, Pakistan will follow, and the Taliban will get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Every one of these claims is wrong.
First, Afghanistan poses less of a threat to global security than has been imagined. The Taliban are extremely unlikely to be able to seize Kabul, even if there was a very significant reduction in foreign troops. In the unlikely event they succeeded, they are even more unlikely to invite Al Qaeda back: Many Taliban leaders see that connection as their fundamental mistake before 9/11 and believe that if they had not supported Al Qaeda, they would still be in power.
And even with a foothold in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda wouldn’t significantly strengthen its ability to harm the West. The U.S. would respond much more vigorously than it did before 9/11 if Al Qaeda bases were detected in Afghanistan, and the Taliban could offer little protection.
If the question is about regional stability, Egypt is more important than Afghanistan. If the concern is terrorism, Pakistan is more important. And Pakistan’s security won’t be determined by events across the border but by its own internal politics, economic decline and toxic relationship with India. Afghanistan isn’t strategically important enough to justify the West’s current level of military and humanitarian investment — and failure there is inevitable unless we reverse course.
Consider the conventional wisdom that following the fall of Kabul, the West was distracted by Iraq and maintained too light a footprint in Afghanistan, failing to provide sufficient money or troops for the mission. Afghans who initially welcomed a foreign military intervention were alienated by the slow pace of development and the poor governance. This lack of progress created the opening for the Taliban to return. According to this narrative, it was only Obama’s surge of 2009 that, in his words, “for the first time in years ... put in place the strategy and resources” so that by December 2010, the U.S. was “on track to achieve (its) goals.”
An irony is that the “light footprint” of the early years was relatively successful — Al Qaeda members were driven out of the country almost immediately, and very quickly, school attendance improved dramatically, health clinics were rolled out, and mobile telephone usage exploded. Non-state-controlled media outlets were established and elections were held for the first time in decades. These are accomplishments worthy of pride, but sadly, the addition of more troops and resources to the NATO-led mission since 2006 has made the situation worse.
The tens of billions of dollars donated to the government of Afghanistan have undermined its leadership. The fashionable agendas of foreigners on short-term tours and their micromanagement have pushed aside the priorities of Afghan ministers. Many of the reconstruction projects have fueled waste and corruption. What’s more, the increases in foreign troops didn’t improve security: rather the reverse. Helmand is less safe in 2011 with 32,000 foreign troops in the province than it was in 2005, when there were only 300. When I walked alone across central Afghanistan in the winter of 2001 and 2002, I found Afghan villagers to be hospitable and generous, but also far more conservative, insular and Islamist than foreigners acknowledged. When I returned to the country in 2006, to establish a nonprofit organization, it was clear that their resistance was inflamed by the increasingly heavy presence of Western troops, which allowed the Taliban to gain support by presenting themselves as fighters for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign occupation.
In June, Obama announced a drawdown of U.S. forces, to be completed in 2014 with the handover of responsibility to Afghan forces. But a political settlement in the next three years is highly improbable because neither the Taliban, nor the Afghan government, nor Afghanistan’s neighbors are showing much commitment to compromise, in part because they still believe they can win.
Many people have pointed out the absurdity of the West’s approach. From 2008 to 2010, I ran the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The center’s research fellows collectively had more than a century of experience on the ground in Afghanistan. Research by fellows such as Andrew Wilder, David Mansfield and Michael Semple proved that our aid projects were increasing instability; that we were undermining any chance of political settlement with the Taliban; and that the Taliban-controlled areas were often more secure than the government areas. Their findings explained why our counterinsurgency strategy was empty and the “surge” was counterproductive, but they were often ignored by the military and political establishment, which has remained defiantly optimistic.
Over the last decade of war, many politicians have trusted charismatic, optimistic generals rather than their own instincts and reason. Concerns about the huge costs of the mission ($120 billion per year for the U.S. alone) and exaggerated fears about what would follow if it failed co-opted almost everyone: Afghan businessmen and foreign contractors, writers and academics. All continued to hope that some magic plan would extract us from humiliation.
At the heart of our irrational persistence are the demons of guilt and fear. Leaders are hypnotized by fears about global security; feel guilty about the loss of lives; ashamed at their inability to honor our promises to Afghans; and terrified of admitting defeat.
Failure in Afghanistan has become “not an option.” This is the fatal legacy of 9/11, because with that slogan, failure has become invisible, inconceivable and inevitable.
By Rory Stewart member of the British Parliament, and the author of “The Places In Between,” about his solo walk across north-central Afghanistan in 2002. (IHT)