Excerpted from the hardcover edition.
The Good War Gone Bad
In late 2011, fighting in Afghanistan and frozen relations with Pakistan were endangering the president’s plans to wrap up the Afghan war. The administration decided that it could use China’s help. After all, the Chinese should want a stable Afghanistan, and should be worried about Pakistan, too. Beijing had made fresh investments in Afghanistan’s mining sector, which appeared set for massive growth after the 2010 discovery of vast new mineral riches.1 And China had long and deep economic ties with Pakistan. So the administration asked a veteran diplomat, an old China hand, to reach out to the Chinese leadership. The diplomat made the rounds in Beijing, meeting with the Chinese president, premier, foreign minister, and a host of other political players. Their answer was clear and unequivocal: “This is your problem. You made this mess. In Afghanistan more war has made things much worse, and in Pakistan things were not so bad before you started poking around. We have interests in this area, but they do not include pulling your chestnuts out of the fire. We will look after our own interests in our own way.” In short, “You made your own bed, now lie in it.” Once they were done pushing back, they invariably asked, “What is your strategy there, anyway?”
Afghanistan is the “good war.” That was what Barack Obama said on the campaign trail. It was a war of necessity that we had to wage in order to defeat al-Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan never harbored terrorists again.2 Obama took up promoting the Afghan war at least in part as an election-year tactic, to protect himself against perennial accusations that Democrats are soft on national security issues. Branding Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” gave him cover to denounce the Iraq war as a “war of choice” that must be brought to an end.
Obama’s stance was widely understood at home and abroad to mean that America would do all it could in Afghanistan—commit more money and send more troops—to finish off the Taliban and build a strong democratic state capable of standing up to terrorism.
Four years later, President Obama is no longer making the case for the “good war.” Instead, he is fast washing his hands of it. It is a popular position at home, where many Americans, including many who voted for Obama in 2008, want nothing more to do with war. They are disillusioned by the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and tired of eleven years of fighting on two fronts. They do not believe that war was the right solution to terrorism and have stopped putting stock in the fearmongering that the Bush administration used to fuel its foreign policy. There is a growing sense that America has no interests in Afghanistan vital enough to justify a major ground presence.
It was to court public opinion that Obama first embraced the war in Afghanistan. And when public opinion changed, he was quick to declare victory and call the troops back home. His actions from start to finish were guided by politics and they played well at home. But abroad, the stories we tell to justify our on-again, off-again approach to this war do not ring true to friend or foe. They know the truth: that we are leaving Afghanistan to its own fate. Leaving even as the demons of regional chaos that first beckoned us there are once again rising to threaten our security.
When President Obama took office, the Afghan war was already eight years old. America went to Afghanistan in October 2001, less than a month after 9/11, to eliminate al-Qaeda. A quick victory made it possible to imagine a hopeful future there after more than two decades of civil war.
With international help, Afghanistan got a new constitution, a new government, and a new president whom the West celebrated as an enlightened partner in the effort to rebuild the country. President Hamid Karzai cut a dashing figure, debonair and progressive, the avatar of America’s goal to free the Muslim world from the clutches of extremism. Even the designer Tom Ford had something to contribute, anointing Karzai “the chicest man on the planet today.”3
Meanwhile, the Taliban and al-Qaeda had retreated to Pakistan,4 seeking refuge in the country’s northwesternmost region: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), an uncertainly governed and ruggedly mountainous region the size of Massachusetts that is home to about 4 million Pashtun tribespeople. Consequently, while Washington was looking to build a new democratic and forward-looking Afghanistan to act as a bulwark against terrorism, it also relied on a close relationship with Pakistan to hound al-Qaeda in its FATA lair. Billions of dollars went into Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Bush presidency, supporting not only counterterrorism efforts but also democracy promotion, schooling for women and girls, and rural development.
But the investment failed to pay the hoped-for dividends. Long before President Obama took office, things had begun to change. By 2006 the Afghan government’s stride had slowed, and there was little doubt that war and instability had returned. In that year the number of attacks by returning Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters rose 400 percent and the number of those killed in such attacks was up by 800 percent.5 In June 2006 more international troops died in Afghanistan than in the Iraq conflict, more than in any other month since the war started.6 The Taliban were making a ferocious comeback against what they saw as an American occupation and a vulnerable puppet government in Kabul.
By 2008 the fighting had morphed into a full-blown insurgency. The United Nations used to issue security maps for aid workers on which green marked safe areas and yellow those areas with some security problems, and red was used for dangerous areas under insurgent control. By 2008 large areas of the maps were in red. Many Afghans thought that the Taliban looked poised for victory, and when it comes to insurgencies, what the locals think often dictates the outcome. One Western observer back from Kabul in mid-2008 said every shopkeeper in the city (the most well-protected part of Afghanistan) thought that Taliban fighters would be in the capital by the year’s end. Afghanistan was fast slipping into chaos.
Everything about Afghanistan was a challenge—its rugged geography, its convoluted ethnic makeup, labyrinthine social structure, and jealous tribalisms, its byzantine politics, and the bitter legacy of decades consumed by war and occupation. But the biggest problem lay across the border: Pakistan.
The Taliban operated out of the FATA, but its leadership had set up shop farther south in Quetta. They used the Pakistani city’s relative safety to regroup and orchestrate the insurgency in Afghanistan. Taliban commanders recruited foot soldiers from seminaries across Pakistan’s Pashtun areas and ran training camps, hospitals, and bomb-making factories in towns and villages a stone’s throw from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Moreover, since the Taliban’s formation in 1994 the insurgent organization has maintained close ties with Pakistan’s intelligence agency and received financial and military support from Islamabad. Pakistani support sustained Taliban military offensives throughout the 1990s, and even after the U.S. offensive broke the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan that relationship continued.
Pakistan has viewed the Taliban as a strategic asset that could keep India out of Afghanistan and under Pakistan’s control. That makes the Afghan insurgency a regional problem. It is hard enough to fight an insurgency, but one that has a safe haven to retreat to within a sympathetic population and can rely on the financial, intelligence, and military support of a neighboring country is a tougher challenge still, by orders of magnitude. The Taliban and al-Qaeda would fight in Afghanistan, and when things got too hot, they would hasten south across the border to tend their wounds, recruit and train fresh fighters, and plan for more war. Indeed, the collective leadership of the Taliban became popularly known as the Quetta Shura, after the city where it met. The Afghanistan fight was starting to eerily resemble Vietnam, with Pakistan acting roughly like Laos, Cambodia, and Maoist China all rolled into one. The war was taking on a new, expensive shape, one that needed urgent attention.
By the time President Obama moved into the Oval Office, the Taliban juggernaut looked unstoppable. They had adopted a flexible, decentralized structure that reported to the leadership in Pakistan, but organized locally. There was a national political infrastructure in place too, with shadow governors and district leaders for every Afghan province. In some cases, this Taliban presence was nominal—the Taliban are almost exclusively a Pashtun phenomenon and do not reach into every corner of multiethnic Afghanistan—but elsewhere the Taliban were in control.
The Taliban had a strength that belied their numbers. The U.S. government estimated that in 2009 the Taliban were no more than 35,000 strong. Of these, only a core of at most 2,000 were battle-hardened veterans of Afghanistan’s earlier wars. A larger number, maybe 5,000 to 10,000, were in the fight to avenge government abuse or the death of kith and kin in U.S. raids and aerial bombings. The largest number of fighters, 20,000 or more, were mercenaries, in it for a few dollars a day.
The Taliban had become politically more savvy and militarily more lethal.7 Gone was their objection to pictures and music, and in came the use of both in their recruiting videos. In their statements, the new Taliban claimed to be open to women going to school. Talk of chopping off hands and lopping off heads in public was put aside.
Other beliefs, more ominously, were put aside as well. Steve Coll, the journalist and longtime observer of Afghanistan, writes that in the 1980s, when Afghan warriors were battling Soviet occupation, the CIA was desperately seeking someone to set off a massive vehicle bomb inside the 1.6-mile-long Salang Tunnel. The tunnel is a crucial north-south link running beneath a difficult pass in the towering Hindu Kush mountain range, and blowing it up would have cut the main Soviet supply route. In order to be effective, the bomb would need to go off mid-tunnel, meaning certain death for its operator. In effect, the CIA was looking for an Afghan suicide bomber.8 No one volunteered. Suicide, said the Afghans, was a grievous sin, and quite against their religion. And yet, fast-forward to 2009, and there had been more than 180 suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan.9 The Taliban had evolved to make Afghanistan an even more dangerous place.
Shortly after he took office, President Obama appointed Richard Holbrooke as his point man on Afghanistan—his special representative—to help him quickly gauge the situation in that country and come up with a strategy to deal with it. At the time the military was urgently lobbying the new president for more troops, needed to hold the line against the Taliban while Washington thought through the problem. Obama asked for a quick strategy review—a quick read of the situation—and tapped former CIA and Clinton White House Pakistan point man Bruce Riedel to lead the effort.10 The review took sixty days, and its findings (popularly known as the Riedel Report) argued for beefing up American troop presence in Afghanistan, “fully resourcing” counterinsurgency operations there, and getting tough with Pakistan. Holbrooke, who served on Riedel’s commission, disagreed. He did not favor committing America to fully resourced counterinsurgency and thought America would get more out of Pakistan through engagement.
Riedel met the president alone to brief him on his report’s findings. Holbrooke thought the president should have heard from more people. Absent a proper debate on the report’s findings and recommendations, thought Holbrooke, the president moved too quickly to deepen the war.
In February 2009, Obama announced that he was sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, buying enough time for the president and his advisers to determine their next steps. Soon after, he also asked his commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to review the war strategy and outline what we needed to do to win.11 As General McChrystal prepared his review, the National Security Council (NSC) pulled together facts, figures, opinion, and analysis from across the government (mostly from the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, and U.S. Agency for International Development) in order to prepare the president to evaluate McChrystal’s recommendations. The goal was to place before President Obama a set of clear options from which he could choose.
The Obama administration was facing a bedeviling two-headed problem. Even as the Taliban were regrouping and growing more formidable, our local partner, the Karzai government, was proving to be weak and ill suited for the task of democracy building.12 The shine had come off Hamid Karzai even before Obama took office. In the administration and Congress’s minds the smartly dressed, enlightened leader of a new Afghanistan had somewhere along the line been reduced to a venal, corrupt, and unreliable partner, and as such a chief reason why the Taliban were doing so well. Whatever the “new” Afghanistan was supposed to look like, in the real, existing Afghanistan, clans and extended families mattered. Karzai’s clan, unfortunately, looked a lot like the Sopranos. The president’s brother Ahmad Wali was actually the fixer in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. He worked notoriously with both the CIA and the Taliban and had his hand in every deal and all the political wrangling in that wayward city. Karzai also patronized an array of corrupt local grandees with ties to the drug trade. They bolstered his rule and he gave them the means to line their pockets while abusing the local population.13
Aid workers, members of Congress, ordinary Afghans, and ordinary Americans alike were angry and frustrated, but the situation regarding corruption tended to be misunderstood. Yes, there was waste and graft, and millions were embezzled. But it was also true that Afghanistan was still a tribal society in which tribal leaders and local bigwigs saw it as their duty to take from the state resources for their community. Karzai felt the need to satisfy that demand to survive at the top. That sort of corruption is not alien to politics, and certainly not in Afghanistan.14
Excerpted from The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr. Copyright © 2014 by Vali Nasr. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.