By Paolo von Schirach
January 13, 2013
WASHINGTON – Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in Washington to talk about future US military presence in his sorry country post 2014. In a joint press conference at the White House, President Obama, while not looking particularly cheerful, restated “the US party line”.
The US-led war in Afghanistan has been a success because we accomplished our main objective of chasing al Qaeda out of the country, while evicting from Kabul the Taliban, the political force that had welcomed Osama bin Laden and friends as honored guests.
Sure enough, we have secured the objective of “sanctuary denial” for al Qaeda. The transnational terror group was scattered. Many of its leaders, including bin Laden, have been killed. Still, more than 10 years into this operation, America has 68,000 thousand troops in Afghanistan. What for? Certainly not to round up non existing al Qaeda terror cells. The cost of this long war has been immense.
Escalation was a mistake
Given this contradiction between policy goals and current operations, it is safe to say that somebody goofed. But today (sadly) nobody is interested in any serious analysis. We are on our way out and therefore the issue of “means and ends in Afghanistan” is no longer politically hot. What needs to be decided is what kind of residual US military presence will be left in Afghanistan after the official end of the US and NATO campaign.
Unrealistic nation building goals
Yet the errors were colossal. The most fundamental mistake was to turn a successful anti terror operation initially led by the CIA and a small number of US ground troops into an unachievable nation building project. The idea was that, in order to lessen the chance that the Taliban and its al Qaeda friends would ever come back, it would have been good to modernize Afghanistan. By turning it to a functioning democracy with reliable public services, America and its Allies would strengthen the credibility of the post Taliban political forces.
Great idea. Except that nobody realised the magnitude. cost and time line of this gigantic effort. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. It had nothing. No public health infrastructure, no eduction system, no functioning administration, no revenue, no real economy. The notion of turning this war torn, devastated nation into a modern and vibrant polity was and is ludicrous.
Bad strategy, poor execution
To make it worse, the whole effort was poorly conceived and poorly managed; so much so that in the ensuing confusion the Taliban saw an opportunity to reorganize and fight against its NATO protected successors. And so the limited goal of chasing al Qaeda out of Afghanistan morphed into a much larger and more complicated mission of securing the political survival of a post Taliban Afghanistan.
While everybody is a genius with the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that America went way beyond its basic national security objective of preventing Afghanistan to be used once more as a launching pad for anti US terror operations.
Special forces only
If we had stuck to that plan, Washington’s strategy would have focused on deploying special forces and intelligence assets aimed at targeting the bad guys. But we did not do that. We occupied the entire country. We launched major development assistance programs. Later on we developed an exit strategy focused on training Afghans forces so that they would become self-sufficient. As a result, we may or may not leave behind a sufficiently resilient military capable of taking charge of the fight against the Taliban. Time will tell.
Small achievements at a very high price
But our goal was not and it should have never become the modernization of a country stuck in the Middle Ages. Our goal was to chase al Qaeda and affiliates, so that they would do us no harm. Broadening the the goals and the means was a costly disaster. An enormous waste of resources, human lives and national energies that achieved very little.