What went wrong in Afghanistan

What went wrong in Afghanistan
© Getty Images

The Washington Post got it wrong. The material that it published recently was not the 21st century’s version of 1971’s “Pentagon Papers.” Neither the reports that Special Afghanistan Inspector General John Sopko and his team produced over the past few years, nor the more recent interviews that it conducted, nor the Donald Rumsfeld “snowflakes” demonstrate that the Pentagon and successive administrations deliberately attempted to fool Congress or the American public.  

Instead, the papers detailed by the Post portray a government that continued to fool itself into believing that it could win the Afghan war even as it fought concurrently in Iraq — and expected to win that war, too. 

War in Afghanistan was not winnable for several reasons. First and foremost, the Bush administration subordinated it to its invasion of Iraq. Second, both the Bush and Obama administrations believed, as did their predecessors, that the United States could undertake what had come to be called “nation-building.” Third, from the very outset, Washington’s policymakers mistakenly believed they could somehow limit Pakistani meddling in Afghan affairs. Finally, neither American policymakers nor military commanders came to grips with the factors that prevented the Afghan Army and police from fighting as coherent forces. 


When al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, few in Washington doubted the need to rid the country of both al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors. Within a year, however, the Bush administration’s attention was riveted on Iraq, with leading officials convinced not only that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons development program but that he, somehow, was linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. As the plan for attacking Iraq matured, concern for Afghanistan, which seemed to be making progress under the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, waned in proportion. 

I personally was affected by that change of focus. Because my counterpart, Doug Feith, the under secretary of Defense for policy, was consumed by planning for what came to be called Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was asked to coordinate the Pentagon’s non-military policies and activities in Afghanistan, although that role had little to do with my job as under secretary of Defense (comptroller). 

After America attacked Iraq on March 20, 2003, and in the years that followed, Washington paid more lip service than attention to developments in Afghanistan — until it became clear, in mid-to-late 2005, that the Taliban, with Pakistan’s assistance, was beginning to regroup and was likely to pose a serious threat to Karzai’s government. It then took several more years, and more Taliban gains, before Washington began to focus once again on the Afghan war. By then, however, the Taliban was no longer easily defeated; and the war dragged on, as it still does today.

Compounding Washington’s inability to sustain its focus on Afghanistan was the long-held American belief, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the United States could “rebuild” fragile states into viable societies. America had really done so only four times: after annihilating Germany and Japan, and after tolerating decades-long dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan. That Americans knew little about Afghan mores and traditions, that they proved incapable of suppressing a burgeoning drug trade and a culture of corruption, did not seem to faze Washington at all. Initially welcomed as liberators, Americans increasingly found themselves resented by locals, especially Pashtuns, who were willing to tolerate Taliban rule, as long as that group preserved longstanding Afghan practices and maintained its reputation for incorruptibility despite its religious fanaticism.

Washington’s inability to cope with Pakistani double-dealing further undermined its prospects in Afghanistan. Pakistan exploited the Pentagon’s financial support, a program that I had initiated while comptroller with a view to having Islamabad focus on terrorists rather than India. While Pakistan did fight terrorists within its borders, it continued to support them in Afghanistan. Islamabad did so even as Pakistani military leaders engaged in seemingly endless dialogues with their American counterparts, whom they simply led up the garden path.


Lastly, efforts to train the Afghans to fight as a Westernized force came to virtually nothing — with the notable exception of Afghan special forces. Most Afghans long had identified with their tribes and ethnic groups, rather than with a central government. Moreover, the military did not escape the corruption that was endemic throughout the country. Desertions were common, as was reimbursement for absentee troops. In addition, Afghans long were accustomed to fighting a form of guerrilla warfare that Winston Churchill had described in his “The Malakand Field Force” a century earlier. Nevertheless, they were quite good at defeating advanced powers which boasted far more sophisticated weaponry.

It was the combination of these products of self-delusion, rather than a diabolical effort to fool the American people, that led to Washington’s inability to extricate itself from Central Asia. Indeed, a succession of military commanders had pointed out, in congressional testimony and in news conferences, that the war in Afghanistan was at best a stalemate. On the other hand, political leaders fearing they would be accused of “losing Afghanistan” could not bring themselves to change their stated objective to rout the Taliban, the Haqqanis, and any others who threatened the government in Kabul.

In February 1984, in the aftermath of the devastating attack on the Marine compound in Beirut four months earlier, then-President Ronald Reagan wisely decided to withdraw American forces from that troubled country. In order to sugar-coat what he was doing, he called it a “strategic redeployment.” He was the last president to recognize that when a war is unwinnable, it is best to save one’s forces for another day, and another place. That has yet to happen in Afghanistan.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.