Afghanistan and Monday morning quarterbacking

This article from David Sanger in last weekend’s New York Times is a must read for those who believe that there were simple solutions to Afghanistan and ‘if we only had done this back in 2002 then everything would be fine.’ From the opening:

If only we had been smart enough, the arguments went, the “good war” might not have gone bad. If only we had gone into Tora Bora with overwhelming force in the winter of 2001, and captured Osama bin Laden. If only we had put a substantial force into the country in 2002, rather than assuming that the Taliban had been “eviscerated,” the term used, and now regretted, by American military briefers. If only we had carried through on President George W. Bush’s promise of a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan.

If only we had not been distracted by Iraq, or averted our eyes from the Taliban’s resurgence, or confronted the realities of Pakistan’s fighting both sides of the war …

If only.

Similar arguments are made about Iraq: If only we didn’t disband the Iraqi Army in 2003, etc. Perhaps there is truth to that, but do those who make such claims consider how the Shia and Kurds, who had been oppressed by Saddam’s Army, would have reacted had Saddam’s Army officers been kept in place?

When confronted with the ‘if only’ argument, my answer is: The reality is that we cannot build a time machine, change our policies, and see what the outcome would be. While there is certainly value in looking back to see what may have gone wrong and trying to apply the lessons to the future, my experience tells me that the certainty of those in the ‘if only’ crowd is driven more by the need to score cheap political points.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Charu says:

    Indeed it is foolish to attempt to undo the past. However, it is quite insane to continue to repeat failed policies and expect a different outcome. Pakistan, it is claimed, is only doing what is in its interests, just as we are. If that is the case, why are we paying it billions to carry out its goals, which are not only antagonistic to ours but also life-threatening to our troops in the region? We supposedly “abandoned” them, and somehow this justifies every knife they stick into our back. Never mind that Pakistan gleefully filled up the void in Afghanistan after we left, and led a colonizing reign-of-terror that matched anything that happened during the Scramble for Africa. Hangings, decapitations, amputations, rapes, genocides, pogroms, destruction of property and heritage.. all took place in Afghanistan under the watchful eyes of the ISI schemers. But this is condoned because poor Pakistan was “orphaned” by us in the ’80s. They had nothing to do with the abysmal choice that they made to embrace terrorism as a means to regional hegemony; it is all our fault for abandoning them (and India’s fault for… well, existing), and our billions are just reparations that don’t even pay for the true magnitude of our betrayal.
    Pakistani paranoia and delusion is one matter. But if we start buying into their schizophrenic worldview, then the game is truly over.

  • T Ruth says:

    Charu, you are right. Small risk though that any part of the civilised world is going to line up to buy into Paq’s worldview.
    Issue is that if we keep playing the same game with Paqistan, largely by their rules then the game will, at best, stay stalemated as IT IS now.
    When one has considered all the factors, from a US/Nato perspective one realises that the US/Nato, of their own, are also very unlikely to be able to change the game of their own.
    That is where the dynamics of other countries comes in–probably, in some broad order of importance, that would mean India, Russia, China and Iran.
    Lets face it, this GWOT is de facto WWIII and this time there are nukes at stake.
    The 43 country ISAF is not good enough and the contribution by many of those countries, eg the UAE and Singapore is purely symbolic. Good but far from good enough.
    The fact that the present dire state of Paqistan has not even been discussed by/at the UN is also telling.
    Yup the ‘if only’ stuff is history, as relevant as ashes. What’s sure and now is that we are living in very interesting times. If Paqistanis feel victims, its because they have made it even more interesting for themselves, across the board.

  • Charu says:

    T Ruth, unfortunately, we are on our own in this war. India is the ultimate soft state; one which has enshrined Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics as policy. Russia was burnt by the last Afghan war and have their own Chechen problem. They have no love for us; which is a pity because in this clash of cultures we share more common interests than not, and they are as hard-nosed as the best in dealing with Islamic terrorists.
    China has no interest in stopping us from being trapped and slowly bled dry in Afghanistan while they build up their own string-of-pearls ocean empire unassailed. They are Pakistan’s all-weather friend, and have got their money’s worth and more from their ally. They would ultimately be the winner should we lose this war. As for Iran; fat chance of them helping us out. Like China, they actively undermine us from the sidelines. If they learned anything from how Pakistan has played us, it is that the possession of nuclear arms changes everything.
    There is no one else we can count on at the moment; the cultural baggage that Israel, like India, would bring to this theater negates any assistance they could provide. Europe is effete, lacks the will, and is under an Islamic demographic threat. Short of partitioning Afghanistan and Pakistan and playing the various ethnic groups against each other until they are spent, I see no way out.

  • T Ruth says:

    Charu, you put it very eloquently and for now more realistically than me.
    The balkanize approach may well be the option left and may well also be the lowest cost approach.
    Somehow, i find it difficult to foresee how India will secure itself without some action. A repeat of 26/11 may leave india without any options.

  • NaSa says:

    Somehow, i find it difficult to foresee how India will secure itself without some action. A repeat of 26/11 may leave india without any options.
    T Ruth, 26/11 was not the first terrorist attack on Bombay/India. Neither will it be the last. Bombay suffered major Islamic terrorist attacks in 1993, 2006 as well, in which hundreds of people were killed each time.
    As Charu pointed out India is a soft state and nothing can change that – people here are more concerned about safe drinking water than safety from terrorist attacks.
    To make matters worse the US has effectively enabled Pakistani terrorism by co-ercing India to talk to Pakistan even though the schemers and planners of 26/11 in the ISI roam free.
    All this finger pointing basically is a pre-emptive exercise in looking for a scapegoat for America’s failure in Pakistan.

  • Joe says:

    Charu and Ruth, you both have very level-headed and cogent analysis of what’s going on in the Afghanistan theater.
    Allow me to share some observations from a military perspective, I am an active duty soldier who recently returned from a tour spent in rural kandahar province.
    1)There is no comprehensive plan at the senior military or civilian level to “win” or exit afghanistan. It wasnt until a year or so ago when the casualties tarted piling up that the senior brass saw the need to get their act together and take things seriously.
    2)rural pashtuns dont value life the way we do. People die early and often. The Taliban pushing them around and staging attacks in their backyards is something theyre used to. It isnt enough for them to stand up for themselves, even if coalition forces offer to help. Theyd rather placate both sides and slip through the middle.
    3)rural pashtuns are more concerned about bickering with fellow tribes over old feuds than they are standing up to the Taliban. Once again, the taliban can kidnap, plant bombs, and take limited food and water from them, it simply isnt enough for them to say “enough is enough!”
    4)The government, and even local elders, are almost hopelessly corrupt. We provided money to local elders for water and well projects which got embezzled.
    5)The Afghan army and police are useless without coalition guidance and direction. The army and police where we were did nothing to patrol or keep the peace. They slept all day and collected their $200/month paycheck. This is yet another reason the Afghan people have no confidence in government.

  • T Ruth says:

    Hi Joe!
    Thanks for sharing your observations from on the ground.
    I can empathise with the troops on the ground. Its frustrating enough to watch all this from afar. I often think how much more frustrating it must be in the frontlines–i imagine in multiples.
    You put your life on the line and you expect that the decision makers sitting in their ivory towers are bringing their full energy to the decisions–using every resource, every lever, every friend. Yet it doesn’t quite appear that way, especially when you set withdrawal deadlines that are right on the face of it, totally unrealistic.
    And then ‘news’ starts trickling out that its 2014 and not 2011, but still…
    The communications are confusing and in an era of sharply divided thinking it is unhelpful and uninspiring, all round, imho.


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