Australian politics, society & culture

How We Lost the War

Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11

"Best friends" George W Bush and John Howard, 8 September 2007. © Mick Tsikas/EPA/Corbis

Sally Neighbour

Long read6100 words
 

On 1 May 2003 then United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared victory in the war in Afghanistan. “We clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilisation and reconstruction activities,” Rumsfeld announced at a press conference in Kabul. “The bulk of the country today is secure.” His tone echoed the triumphal tenor of the banner draped across the USS Abraham Lincoln, on which then President George Bush had similarly declared success in Iraq just hours before: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”.

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Yet eight years later, the US and its allies, including Australia, remain mired in a conflict that shows no signs of having been won. Even as western forces begin withdrawing and handing over to the Afghans, the quagmire is deepening and Afghanistan is gazing into the abyss of possible state collapse, protracted civil warfare and a strong chance of the Taliban returning to power. "It's a recipe for war going on forever," says Anatol Lieven, professor of war studies at King's College in London.

Meanwhile the country's humanitarian crisis is as bleak as ever. "It is inconceivable to me that after ten years the vast majority of the population of Kabul is still living in slums," says Lieven. "How can that be, given the spending of over 1 trillion dollars? Death rates in childbirth have remained among the worst in the world. Ten years after we went in, we haven't even managed to [fix] that."

The story of how Afghanistan and the war were lost is a grim saga of political and military overreach, strategic myopia and a wilful refusal to learn from history or acknowledge realities on the ground. For Afghanistan, it is truly heartbreaking.

It began with the first, flawed decision to respond to the September 11 attacks on the US by going to war. "Immediately after September 11, Secretary Rumsfeld sent a request to all combatant commanders asking them for their ideas for what can be done in response to this terrible attack," recounts Douglas Feith, director of the Center for National Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute, New York. As the under-secretary of defence from 2001–05, he was a key member of the Bush neo-cons in charge of American policy.

"The answers that [Rumsfeld] got from the various commands tended to run along these lines: 'we have enormous capabilities to move ships, aircraft, special operations forces. If you give us a target we can hit it.'" By Feith's account, Rumsfeld was dismayed, responding: "What kind of an answer is that? I'm asking you what you can do. The American people are spending one-third of a trillion dollars per year on the defence budget, and you're telling me unless the intelligence people can point you to a terrorist operative or headquarters, there's nothing the American military can do?"

The problem was that American intelligence capacity had been so downgraded after the Cold War that the CIA and its fellow agencies had no 'HUMINT' – jargon for human intelligence, or people on the ground – and virtually no electronic surveillance capability in Afghanistan. The US had been blindsided by the Islamist revolt that had been brewing for decades, and couldn't pinpoint the terrorists who had attacked it on September 11.

"We didn't know where bin Laden was," says Feith, in Australia recently for a conference held by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney to mark the tenth anniversary of September 11 and the start of the war. "So this was the strategic challenge that we had: how can we take sensible action [when we have no intelligence]? The answer was to focus on the state supporters."

For this task, too, the world's superpower was deeply unprepared, Feith concedes. "We had no war plan for Afghanistan. We have war plans for a whole lot of contingencies – Iraq, Iran, North Korea – [but] we had nothing on the shelf for Afghanistan. No one in a million years would have believed the US was going to invade a landlocked country in Central Asia just like that."

So the Pentagon quickly manufactured a plan. On 7 October 2001 an American-led Coalition launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the aerial bombardment of key Taliban and Al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan by fighter jets and cruise missiles fired from American and British ships and submarines. Clandestine teams of US Army Special Forces and CIA operatives were sent in to support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance as they advanced on Kabul.

The results were swift and decisive. The Taliban collapsed and seemingly vanished within weeks. By December an interim government was in place, headed by Hamid Karzai – the urbane foreign-educated Pashtun tribal leader hand-picked by the US for the job – and elections were set down for 2004. Most Afghans were glad to see the end of the brutal Taliban regime. If ever the war was there for the winning it was now.

"The opportunity was there in 2002 to really capitalise on that quick success and the euphoria among the Afghan people," says Australian military analyst James Brown, a former army commander who was later attached to the Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. Tragically, Brown says, "that opportunity was lost."

The first mistake, according to Lieven, was to assume the Taliban had been driven out. There had been no ceasefire, no demobilisation and no laying down of arms, and the Taliban were excluded from an international conference held in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001 to form a new government. The former United Nations special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, later said: "The Taliban should have been at Bonn. This was our original sin."

"The vast majority of the Taliban hadn't been driven anywhere," says Lieven. "They went back to their villages to wait and see what would happen. That was our opportunity to make a change in Afghanistan, to ensure they didn't re-emerge. But over the next few years we made such a shambles of it on the ground that they all took up arms again."

The American-led effort, enthusiastically joined by Australia, was plagued from the start by a profound misunderstanding of Afghanistan and what it would take to prevail there. It seems little was learned from the Afghans' rout of the British Imperial Army in the nineteenth century and the Soviet Union in 1989. The US expected a quick, cheap victory through its vastly superior airpower without getting its boots dirty. "In the Pentagon there was no appetite for troops on the ground and they wanted it done with minimal cost," the US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

Determined to avoid large-scale troop deployments, the US made what Rashid calls its "most fatal mistake": effectively contracting out the conduct of the war to a cast of Afghan warlords and mujaheddin commanders who were to act as its proxies. Within days of September 11, Bush signed an order giving the CIA extra powers and a budget of close to $1 billion to bankroll the so-called 'warlord strategy'. CIA operatives flew in with suitcases full of cash to pay off notoriously fickle and brutal mujaheddin veterans, such as Rashid Dostum and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, both accused war criminals from the '90s, to help fight the Taliban on their behalf.

Ahmed Rashid writes in his landmark book Descent into Chaos: "For the next two years the [CIA] was to run Afghanistan not by democratisation or nation-building but by paying off warlords to keep the peace." As the International Crisis Group reported, from the beginning: "a culture of impunity was allowed to take root in the name of 'stability'."

By Rashid's account, the CIA put 45,000 Afghan mercenaries on its payroll, on stipends of up to US$200 per month, four times the top wage in Kabul. One Northern Alliance commander, Hazrat Ali, was given enough CIA cash to establish an 18,000-strong militia. Enriched and empowered by their American backers, the hated warlords – whose excesses had been the cause of the Taliban sweeping to power in the first place – were soon fighting it out again for control of tolls, taxes, weapons and the poppy trade. Security disappeared, while crime, violence and opium growing escalated. The Afghan government had no money to buy chairs, desks or pens, while the warlords were rolling in it.

Rashid writes: "The unstated US strategy was to leave Karzai ineffectual in the capital, protected by foreign forces, while relying on the warlords to keep Pax Americana in the countryside." Thus, "Afghan civil society was being strangled even as it emerged, and the Afghan government was made to look incompetent and powerless … With a new warlord state being established under the patronage of the US military, Karzai and his government could not compete."

The warlords played the Americans off against each other, sometimes calling in airstrikes by American fighter jets against their rivals on the pretext that there were Taliban among them. The over-reliance on airpower and faulty intelligence caused civilian casualties to soar; in June 2002, 812 civilians were killed in air raids by the US. Lieven says this did "catastrophic damage and stirred up desire for revenge".

Even the crucial task of hunting bin Laden was entrusted to the warlords, as Rumsfeld refused repeated requests to send in more American troops and Army Rangers to patrol the Pakistani border. The CIA's key field officer, Gary Berntsen, wrote later: "Day and night I kept thinking, we needed US soldiers on the ground! We need them to do the fighting! We need them to block a possible Al Qaeda escape into Pakistan!" The famous battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, in the mountain range of eastern Afghanistan where bin Laden and his followers were hiding, was fought – and effectively lost – by the Pentagon's proxies with no US troops on the ground. By the time a team of US Special Forces arrived, three days after the battle started, it was too late.

"Bin Laden and bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area," the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations later reported. Rashid says the tribesmen who gave bin Laden safe passage were on the payroll of Hazrat Ali, the militia boss so lavishly bankrolled by the CIA. In 2003 a taskforce of American commandos leading the hunt for bin Laden were transferred to Iraq. It would take another eight years for the Al Qaeda chief to be hunted down and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

For former President Bush, who is said to have once confused the Taliban with an all-girl pop group, Afghanistan was always just a curtain-raiser. "It was quite clear the US obsession was with Iraq. Afghanistan was a sideshow," says Brown.

Less than six months after launching its war, the Bush administration began pulling out resources from Afghanistan in readiness for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Bush had already rejected any need to reconstruct Afghanistan, declaring "we are not into nation-building".

"Iraq was more than just a major distraction to Afghanistan," former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Rashid. "Huge resources were devoted to Iraq, which focused away from nation-building in Afghanistan. The billions spent in Iraq were the billions that were not spent in Afghanistan."

Within months of the Taliban being ousted, the seeds for its revival were being sown, nourished by the continuing American occupation, mounting civilian casualties, atrocities by anti-Taliban commanders that went unpunished, warlord impunity, spiralling security issues and unabated human misery. Even as the US was scaling down its efforts, the Taliban was regrouping.

"The battle has started," Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar warned in May 2002. "Its fire has been kindled and it will engulf the White House, seat of injustice and tyranny."

*

Of the allies who joined the US invasion of Afghanistan, none was quicker or more eager to do so than Australia. Then Prime Minister John Howard's presence in Washington on 11 September as an eyewitness to America's anguish fuelled a visceral personal reaction, which was quickly translated into policy. Howard called it "a day of infamy" and within 24 hours committed Australia to a war that had not yet even been declared, announcing, before having consulted his colleagues or cabinet: "We haven't been requested to provide any military assistance but obviously if we were asked to help, we would."

SBS political correspondent Karen Middleton chronicles Australia's involvement in a new book, An Unwinnable War. Middleton writes that Australia was keener than the US that it be part of the fray. "The Pentagon hadn't been planning on involving other people so they weren't focused on what they would need to do to support allies in that sort of context," Australia's former ambassador to the US, Michael Thawley, told Middleton. Rumsfeld told his colleagues the Pentagon would include Australia "if we can". By this stage Howard had already invoked the ANZUS treaty – under which Australia, New Zealand and the US agreed to aid each other militarily – for the first time in its history. He did so with the enthusiastic support of then Opposition leader Kim Beazley.

Soldiers from Australia's Special Air Service Regiment were among the first foreigners to enter Afghanistan, after US and British Special Forces. The SAS detachment, dispatched in the midst of the 2001 election campaign, was the vanguard for some 1000 Australians, whose deployment would require what then Treasurer Peter Costello called "the largest military funding build-up in Australia's peacetime history", with a budget allocation of $1.1 billion in 2001–02. According to the then US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, it confirmed Australia's reputation for "punching above its weight".

But, like the Bush administration, the Australian government vastly underestimated the task. Middleton writes: "Howard was adamant he didn't want to be embroiled in longer-term fighting, reconstruction or any messy 'nation-building'. He wanted a surgical operation with a finite duration."

"I was conscious given the potential for difficulties in our own part of the world, that the right combination was to provide sharp-edged forces for a limited period of time during the hot part but not get bogged down in a long drawn out peacekeeping operation," Howard said.

Barely a year after deployment the Australian government announced its forces would be withdrawn. The decision coincided with a report by Human Rights Watch describing Afghanistan's precarious situation:

 

Far from emerging as a stable democracy, Afghanistan remains a fractured, undemocratic collection of 'fiefdoms' in which warlords are free to intimidate, extort and repress local populations, while almost completely denying basic freedoms … Afghanistan, a textbook definition of a failed state under the Taliban, now runs the risk of becoming a state that fails its people, except this time on the international community's watch.

 

The Australian withdrawal dismayed the then Australian ambassador to Afghanistan, Mahmoud Saikal, who wrote to Howard in late 2002 requesting the continuation of military assistance to Afghanistan. Saikal says the pullout decision was "a real surprise" because it came just a week after a visit by then Afghan Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Abdullah who was "assured of Australia's continued support".

"We were told that because of the Australian commitment to the Solomon Islands the forces were stretched and Australia wasn't in a position to continue in Afghanistan," Saikal told me. "But my feeling was that by the end of 2002 Australia had received signals from the US that the invasion of Iraq was coming up and Australia was grooming itself to contribute in Iraq."

By the end of 2002 all Australian personnel in Afghanistan had been withdrawn except for a single staff officer at Bagram, who was referred to by then Shadow Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd as Howard's "one-man war on terror". Australia's resources were indeed being diverted to Iraq. Bush had already announced of Australia, during a visit by Howard to Washington, "our best friend will be with us at the end of this war, too." Bush singled out Howard in his 2010 memoir Decision Points as "a staunch advocate of confronting Saddam" and rewarded him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the sobriquet "man of steel".

But the Afghans still lament Howard's priorities.

"Australia was the first country in the world to withdraw from Afghanistan that early," says Saikal. "Our army and police forces were almost non-existent at that time. We badly needed international forces [because] clear signs of a Taliban and Al Qaeda comeback were there." Saikal says the immediate impact of the Australian decision was to show that international resolve on Afghanistan was "not very strong": "It gave a bit of a morale boost and strength to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and their key backers, in particular the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence agency] of Pakistan." He says "the flip-flop and half-hearted position of the international community" allowed the ISI to orchestrate "the return of Al Qaeda and the Taliban to the political and military landscape of Afghanistan".

*

By 2003, while the world's attention was fixed on the unfolding war in Iraq, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan was gaining strength. Bin Laden was telling his followers: "We advise the importance of dragging the enemies' forces into a long, exhausting and continuous battle."

Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his shura (council) had re-located to Quetta in south-west Pakistan, where they transformed the suburb of Pashtunabad into their own mini Taliban state, banning television, photography and kite flying, just like in Afghanistan's Kandahar in the late '90s. Omar continued to enjoy the protection of the ISI, which had backed and armed the Taliban since its formation in 1994.

"For Pakistan [the Taliban] still represented the future of Afghanistan, and they had to be hidden away until their time came," says Rashid. Even as Pakistan's then President Pervez Musharraf was being lionised by Bush as a crucial ally, his military was actively supporting, funding and arming the insurgents. Rashid says the ISI sent memos to Musharraf stating that the Americans would not stay long in Afghanistan and the Taliban should be kept alive.

Dual safe havens enabled Omar's Afghan Taliban to regroup in Quetta and the nascent Pakistani Taliban to establish itself, alongside Al Qaeda, in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where it would emerge as a deadly new force determined to attack the Pakistani state.

Nicholas Burns, who was US ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005 and under-secretary of state from 2005 to 2008, says this was the key to the Taliban's resurgence: "Here's a force that has the option of retreating to another country to rest, recuperate and come back at us, and that's a tactical advantage we would never [normally] permit, but we have permitted it because of [Pakistan's] national sovereignty.

"Looking back, I don't think the US saw the problem in 2003 to 2005 as clearly as I do now … The Pakistani government has a strategic interest in keeping the Taliban alive because of their obsession and paranoia about India and because they see the Taliban as their key card in preventing Indian domination of Afghanistan." He says Pakistan's perennial promises to crack down on the insurgents are illusory: "The Pakistanis will not change and they are a major problem."

In some ways, Pakistan's all-powerful military intelligence complex and its diabolical double-dealing are monsters of America's own making. In the 50 years to 2002, the US gave Pakistan a total of $12.6 billion in economic and military aid. Rashid notes that $9.19 billion was provided during 24 years of military rule, while only $3.4 billion was given to civilian governments over a 19-year period. From 2001 to 2007, the US gave more than $10 billion to the Musharraf regime.

An aid package of US$700 million in 2004 included $364 million for the military and a mere $19 million for "improving democratic participation".

"The US has not been a force for democracy in Pakistan," says journalist and author Fatima Bhutto, niece of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. "The US has supported every military dictator Pakistan has ever had. In fact it has stymied democracy." Bhutto was speaking at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May.

By 2006 the Afghan insurgency was exploding. In the first six months of that year, more than 1000 people were killed, almost double the total figure for the previous year. In the last six months of 2006, there were 2100 American air strikes, more than in the first four years of the war. The Taliban struck back with a deadly new tactic – suicide bombing. The number of suicide attacks jumped from six in 2004, to 21 in 2005, to 141 in 2006.

While the US belatedly bolstered its ground troops, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which had initially been restricted to Kabul, steadily expanded its forces around the country from 32,000 to 45,000. By 2011 they would number more than 132,000. Australian soldiers were sent back in 2005, with an initial re-deployment of 190 from the SAS. Today the Australian contingent numbers 1550. The escalation of the western effort culminated in US President Barack Obama's 30,000-strong troop surge in 2010.

But the Coalition's efforts in this second phase of the war were plagued by its failure to heed the essential principle of warfare enunciated by the ancient Chinese military sage Sun Tzu: know your enemy. The insurgents who had taken up arms after 2001 were, for the most part, not terrorists but patriots inspired by a single objective; the same goal that had spurred their forebears to fight the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the 1980s – getting foreign forces out of Afghanistan.

A British SAS officer told journalist James Fergusson, author of the 2010 book Taliban: "In 2006 when the fighting started, we called everyone who resisted us 'Taliban'. But they really weren't, necessarily. They were just the community's warrior class who had always defended their community against outsiders, and were bound to do so again. The 'Taliban' in that sense were an enemy of our own creation."

Long after bin Laden and his group had re-located to Pakistan, the American and Australian governments continued to insist their fight in Afghanistan was with Al Qaeda and the terrorists.

"We were told for years afterwards, 'Al Qaeda is still here.' It was like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They weren't there, they were gone," says Fergusson. By failing to distinguish between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the US and its allies lost the opportunity to divide and weaken their enemy and isolate bin Laden's group.

As they sought to destroy the Taliban – who, as it turns out, are indestructible – the US embarked on a new strategy, set out in The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, released in 2006. It was based on the classic counterinsurgency – or COIN in military jargon – maxim of winning the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population. A key architect of the new COIN doctrine, Australian military strategist David Kilcullen, who advised US General David Petraeus, says it embraces the complete range of measures taken to defeat an insurgency including political, administrative, economic and informational strategies. In short, he says, "Counterinsurgency is armed social work."

The COIN strategy was twinned with an enormously ambitious program of reconstruction and nation-building – latterly embraced by the US – involving a myriad of NGOs and provincial reconstruction teams set up under ISAF to help build roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and boost security and governance.

Nicholas Burns believes the Coalition lost sight of its central purpose: "At times I think we lost our way by taking our eye off the fundamental objectives of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban and getting into these enormous nation-building exercises that were impossible to deliver … They were noble, they were well-intentioned, but I think we promised more than we could deliver."

James Brown says American analysts broadly agree that the COIN strategy failed because it was too ambitious: "Armies were very quick to embrace COIN doctrine because it appeals to how they see themselves – not just as soldiers but as peace-bringers, community negotiators, actors bringing some reasonable improvement to the lives of the people whose countries they are operating in. There is a movement now to critically evaluate COIN doctrine, and that movement is saying this is just ridiculous – trying to get soldiers not just to defeat the bad guys but to build political systems, build sewerage systems, provide skills to Afghan youths so they don't become $10-a-day Taliban. It was just too ambitious to start with."

Brown says Australia needs to have the debate now being waged in the US: "maybe this COIN thing is bullshit, maybe we just can't do it."

Fergusson sees a more basic reason why COIN failed: "It's all about winning hearts and minds. They didn't do it. They bombed them. If you go in and bomb a village, they're all going to become Taliban."

Tragically for Afghanistan, the enormous civilian reconstruction program was as flawed as the military campaign. "The effort to build up Afghanistan suffered from three colossal problems," says Anatol Lieven. "It was grotesquely broken up between literally thousands of NGOs and government departments, all falling over each other. It was grotesquely short term. And our ambitions were far too great and our performance far too low."

Of the staggering US$62 billion earmarked by international donors for reconstruction, Lieven estimates 40% was "creamed off" to western consultants and another 30% spent on salaries. "At most, one-third got to the Afghan government. By the time the Afghan government looted it, you're talking about the possibility of 5% of the money getting to ordinary Afghans."

While billions were wasted, there was scant investment in the civil and political institutions essential for a new Afghan state. Instead, the West backed a highly centralised presidential system of government under Hamid Karzai, whose regime is now known to be corrupt, dysfunctional and widely despised. James Fergusson echoes a common view: "Karzai is a leader who is absolutely not interested in the principles of democracy. He's interested in power and power for it's own sake."

The disturbing conundrum is what happens when foreign forces leave. It has to be said Afghanistan's prospects are depressing. The Karzai government's survival will depend on the Afghan National Army, which is weak, fractured, underfunded and generally poorly trained, despite the laudable efforts of Australian troops to train and bolster the ANA's 4th Brigade in the Oruzgan province.

According to a UN report last year, nine out of ten rank-and-file Afghan soldiers are illiterate and three in ten are drug addicts. The desertion rate is 60%. "It's a recipe for the army not fighting at all, or running amok," says Lieven.

"There's not much optimism about the ANA," agrees Professor Amin Saikal, director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. "Most of the soldiers don't know what they are fighting for. Are they fighting to protect a corrupt and dysfunctional government under Karzai? People don't understand what the government stands for but they understand very well what the Taliban stands for. The Taliban tells them 'our mission is to protect your religion and protect your country.' They can understand that because that is what they have done for centuries, and that resonates very strongly with the Afghan people."

As the Taliban steps up its summer offensive with a campaign of assassinations targeting mayors, police chiefs and provincial politicians, Saikal sees "a strong chance" of the Taliban re-taking power.

The alternative, according to Lieven, may be just as bad. "What the Americans are setting Afghanistan up for is a military coup," he says. Under this equally bleak scenario, a clique of senior army officers from the former Northern Alliance and their loyalists would control the cities, while the Taliban controls the countryside. It's a prescription, says Lieven, for "permanent civil war".

Ahead of the 2014 target for foreign troop withdrawal, the US and its allies are busy re-defining 'success' in order to rationalise their departure. Douglas Feith says a 'successful' result will not necessarily include peace, stability, prosperity, democracy or women's rights.

"If that's your definition of success, you can easily say it can't be achieved. I think a reasonable definition of success is to acknowledge that Afghanistan is going to be a country with profound problems for the foreseeable future, and success would be enabling the country to deal with those problems without total dependence on the outside world." At this point, even that seems optimistic.

Sally Neighbour

Sally Neighbour is a multiple award-winning journalist and author, best known for her work as a reporter with Four Corners, recognised by three Walkley Awards. She is the author of The Mother of Mohammed and In the Shadow of Swords.
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Published in The Monthly, September 2011, No. 71