David Rohde & David E. Sanger / New York Times – 2007-08-12 22:01:23
(August 12, 2007) — A year after the Taliban fell to a US-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey what appeared to be a triumph — a fresh start for a country ripped apart by years of war with the Soviets and brutal repression by religious extremists.
With a senior American diplomat, Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters, with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the US Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a “spent force.”
“Some of us were saying, ‘Not so fast,’ ” Burns, now the undersecretary of state for political affairs, recalled. “A number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear as a political and military force.”
But that skepticism never took hold in Washington. Assessments by the CIA circulating at the same time reported that the Taliban were so decimated, they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports. The American sense of victory was so robust that the top CIA specialists and elite special forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan were packing their guns and preparing for the next war, in Iraq.
Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the US military call “the good war” off course.
Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the US focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.
The troops have scored some successes recently, and since the 2001 invasion, there have been improvements in health care and education, as well as the quality of life in the cities. But Afghanistan’s embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had “definitely deteriorated.”
One former national security official called that “a very diplomatic understatement.”
President Bush’s critics have long contended that the Iraq war has diminished the US effort in Afghanistan, which the administration has denied, but an examination of how the policy unfolded within the administration reveals a deep divide over how to proceed in Afghanistan and a series of decisions that at times seemed to relegate it to an afterthought as Iraq unraveled.
Statements from the White House, including from the president, in support of Afghanistan were resolute, but behind them was a halting, sometimes reluctant commitment to solving Afghanistan’s myriad problems, according to dozens of interviews in the United States, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
At critical moments in the fight for Afghanistan, the Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq, including elite CIA teams and special forces units involved in the search for terrorists. As sophisticated Predator drone spy planes rolled off assembly lines in the United States, they were shipped to Iraq, undercutting the search for Taliban and terrorist leaders, according to senior military and intelligence officials.
As defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed US trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, and Karzai, the administration’s handpicked president, for a large international force. As the situation deteriorated, Rumsfeld and other administration officials reversed course and cajoled European allies into sending troops.
When it came to reconstruction, big goals were announced, big projects identified. Yet in the year Bush promised a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, the country received less assistance per capita than did post-conflict Bosnia and Kosovo, or even desperately poor Haiti, according to a study by the Rand think tank.
By late last year, when the United States began increasing troop levels in Afghanistan to the current level of 23,500, a senior American military commander in the country said he was surprised to discover that “I could count on the fingers of one or two hands the number of US government agricultural experts” in Afghanistan, where 80 percent of the economy is agricultural. A $300 million project approved by Congress for small businesses in Afghanistan was never financed by the administration.
Underlying many of the decisions, officials say, was a misapprehension about what Americans would find on the ground in Afghanistan. “The perception was that Afghans hated foreigners and that the Iraqis would welcome us,” said James Dobbins, the administration’s former special envoy for Afghanistan. “The reverse turned out to be the case.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the administration’s policy, saying, “I don’t buy the argument that Afghanistan was starved of resources.” Yet she said: “I don’t think the US government had what it needed for reconstructing a country. We did it ad hoc in the Balkans, and then in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq.”
In interviews, three former American ambassadors to Afghanistan were more critical of Washington’s record.
“I said from the get-go that we didn’t have enough money and we didn’t have enough soldiers,” said Robert Finn, who was the ambassador in 2002 and 2003. “I’m saying the same thing six years later.”
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the next ambassador and is now the U.N. ambassador, said, “I do think that state-building and nation-building, we came to that reluctantly,” adding that “I think more could have been done earlier on these issues.”
And Ronald Neumann, who replaced Khalilzad in Kabul, said, “The idea that we could just hunt terrorists and we didn’t have to do nation-building, and we could just leave it alone, that was a large mistake.”
After months of arguing unsuccessfully for a far larger effort in Afghanistan, Dobbins received an unexpected call in April 2002. Bush, he was told, was planning to proclaim America’s commitment to rebuild Afghanistan.
On April 17, 2002, Bush traveled to the Virginia Military Institute, where Gen. George Marshall trained a century ago. “Marshall knew that our military victory against enemies in World War II had to be followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings,” Bush said, calling Marshall’s work “a beacon to light the path that we, too, must follow.”
In the end, the United States deployed 8,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2002, with orders to hunt Taliban and al Qaeda members, and not to engage in peacekeeping or reconstruction. The 4,000-member international peacekeeping force did not venture beyond Kabul.
As an alternative, officials hatched a loosely organized plan for Afghans to secure the country themselves. The United States would train a 70,000-member army. Japan would disarm some 100,000 militia fighters. Britain would mount an anti-narcotics program. Italy would carry out changes in the judiciary. And Germany would train a 62,000-member police force.
But that meant no one was in overall command, officials now say. Many holes emerged in the US effort.
There were so few State Department or Pentagon civil affairs officials that 13 teams of CIA operatives, whose main job was to hunt terrorists and the Taliban, were asked to stay in remote corners of Afghanistan to coordinate political efforts, said John McLaughlin, who was deputy director and then acting director of the agency. “It took us quite a while to get them regrouped in the southeast for counterterrorism,” he said of the CIA teams.
Sixteen months after the president’s 2002 speech, the US Agency for International Development, the government’s main foreign development arm, had seven full-time staffers and 35 full-time contract staff members in Afghanistan, most of them Afghans, according to a government audit. Sixty-one agency positions were vacant.
“It was state-building on the cheap – it was a duct-tape approach,” recalled Said Jawad, Karzai’s chief of staff at the time and Afghanistan’s current ambassador to Washington. “It was fixing things that were broken, not a strategic approach.”
Gen. James Jones, a retired US officer and a former NATO supreme commander, said Iraq caused the United States to “take its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan. He warned that the consequences of failure “are just as serious in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq.”
“Symbolically, it’s more the epicenter of terrorism than Iraq,” he said. “If we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, you’re sending a very clear message to the terrorist organizations that the US, the UN and the 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated.”
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