Steve Coll’s new book picks up where he left off in Ghost Wars, published in 2004. Together, the two volumes are more than a 1,500-page thick opus on futility, confusion, misplaced hopes and serious errors. Despite the resources and commitment that the administrations of American presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump have put into the war in Afghanistan, the pieces just do not fit. The demons would not fall in line regardless of critical policy adjustments — from democracy building to seizing, holding and handing off parcels of real estate to the Afghan National Army; from counterterrorism to counternarcotics to counter-insurgency; from campaigns against al Qaeda to campaigns against the Afghan Taliban; and from coddling Pakistan to bashing it.
Afghanistan remains a quagmire for the US troops that cannot succeed without good Afghan governance, capable Afghan national forces and a strong partnership with Pakistan. All these factors have been consistently lacking. Washington keeps looking for an exit strategy but this pursuit only increases the resolve of its opponents. Badly conceived and poorly executed wars – and no country’s record since Vietnam is worse on this score than the United States’ – do not usually end well.
Doing nothing wasn’t an option after the 9/11 body blows to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, as Coll recounts, the US military campaign in Afghanistan went awry very quickly. The initial US air strikes were directed against typical conventional warfare targets instead of focused on an unconventional campaign to decapitate the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban. As the leaders from the two organisations were fleeing from Kabul and Kandahar, the best chance of inflicting a knockout blow was lost with insufficient boots on the ground and inadequate firepower.
Whatever help Pakistan’s troops might have provided in rounding up fleeing Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda leaders evaporated when Pakistan-based jihadists attacked the Indian parliament building in December 2001, which shifted Rawalpindi’s attention to counter the mobilisation of Indian troops along Pakistan’s eastern borders. It is remarkable that this daring attack and the prolonged crisis it prompted are missing from Coll’s otherwise detailed account. Was this a masterstroke to loosen the noose around the necks of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders or a random occurrence? Either way, the prospect of another war in the Subcontinent so soon after Kargil shifted Pakistan and the Bush administration’s focus away from the Tora Bora cave complex where many al Qaeda leaders were then holed up. Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders would live to fight another day. Pakistan would help initially with capturing the former but not the latter.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Herald on April 19, 2018. You can read the full article here.