international analysis and commentary

Twenty years in Afghanistan (Part 1): How did we get here?


As debates on the rout in Afghanistan grow, it is vital that the US and its allies take a hard look at what went wrong in their strategy, lest the same mistakes are repeated again.

The campaign has been a long, difficult and unprecedented effort to bring together various governments, militaries, development experts, intelligence services and many more with a common objective: stabilizing Afghanistan. This approach has proven to be a moving target all along, engulfing actors from around the world in an ever more complicated mission. Yet, it did not start this way.


“United We Stand” – the rationale for a coalition in 2001

After 9/11, the US was determined to respond strongly and unilaterally with no allied support. The US opted for a “war of necessity” and built a massive operation relying on its own means. Initially, NATO was not even contemplated.

For US allies in 2001 it was unthinkable not to show solidarity, if anything to maintain the bond with the only superpower on the planet. A number of countries, the UK first and foremost, insisted on joining “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF) to keep their status as key US allies. Italy contributed with naval operations and special forces. Later on, when the UN created an international force to operate in the country, the rationale for joining and sustaining the US effort became even stronger and the number of participants grew. NATO formally came to Afghanistan only in 2003, relieving control of the UN-mandated International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

The main reason for the rest of the West to join the US since 2001 was prestige: the “big kids” had to be there and were ready to follow the US no matter what, trusting that American power would soon bring things under control in any case. For the others, if not overt support, benign neutrality turned out to be a viable alternative. Meanwhile, those who had been dealing with the Taliban – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – scrambled to review their cards to varying degrees. The UAE’s new stance in particular, which swiftly turned into a key launching pad for military operations, set in motion a series of realignments in the Gulf, leading to the new balance of power we see today.


The challenges of “reconstruction”

Things started to change when the military effort had to give way to nation building – an elusive concept. A fatal misunderstanding immediately set in: the US and its allies started to talk about “reconstruction”, whereas the real issue was “construction”, i.e., creating a working state administration from scratch in a devastated country. In 2001, no one could point to a viable previous example. Should the coalition replicate the institutions of the 1973 Republic? Or those of the previous Kingdom of Afghanistan? Should they go for a centralized or a decentralized system? The eventual arrangement was de facto feudal: leaving former warlords as key rulers in their areas of influence and trying to use tribal contacts to keep the situation under control, without going through a process of thorough reconciliation and transitional justice. The Taliban were singled out as the “rotten apples” in the Afghan fold.

The absence of a meaningful process of transitional justice, the ongoing feuds among warlords who had bitterly fought each other and the elimination of the Taliban from the equation, pushing them into the insurgency, set the entire nation-building effort on shaky grounds from the start in political terms. Also, the security situation never normalized.

This in turn made it extremely difficult for development experts to operate effectively with civil society and created barriers to fruitful exchange. Most of the Western experts, many of whom were walled in safe houses and with no contact with locals, except the occasional driver and phone card buyer, went on chasing their own ideas of what the new state should look like, often ending their tour without seeing it realized. Both well-meaning and absurd projects set in. In the process, some became convinced that the key to promoting women’s rights and democratic freedom rested on setting up skateboarding schools or skiing courses. These are just anecdotes but they are telling examples of how many voices and projects emerged in the immense whirlwind of international efforts.

The challenges of nation building, with scores of competing experts working on parallel projects from different countries and organizations, unaware of others’ roles, if not in overt confrontation with colleagues, even from their own countries, soon set development agendas on a collision course There were attempts at a division of labour on the major chapters, such as security sector reform and economic growth. Yet again, the difficulty of creating a system from zero and to proceed as a group, with the US nominally focusing on rebuilding the army, but actually investing in everything, posed enormous obstacles to getting the international intervention right. It was a simple paradox, after all: everybody wanted to be there and show success in bringing democracy and stability. However, the more numerous the actors were, the bigger the difficulties in coordination and the smaller the final impact, as disorderly actions often cancelled each other out in the process and exhausted the minimal administrative capacity of local counterparts.


In the fog of war

On the military side, there never was clarity about how the campaign was really going.

When the moment came for Operation Enduring Freedom to cede control of the entire territory to the International Security Assistance Force operated by NATO in 2006, the understanding was that the US had secured the turbulent areas, namely the South and the East, and that allies would take over a “pacified” terrain. Yet, barely one day after ISAF assumed control of the operations nationwide, an attack took place against NATO forces on May 5, 2006 killing two soldiers of an Italian patrol, Captain Manuel Fiorito and Warrant Officer Luca Polsinelli. On that day, the bulk of ISAF aviation had already been moved to the South, with a view to guard Helmand and Kandahar, in anticipation of clashes. Tellingly, however, the attack took place near Kabul, signalling that the Taliban were determined to fight up to the heart of foreign forces.

This marked the beginning of a stream of attacks that grew steadily and became more and more visible. Being the terrain under NATO command and with different militaries involved, the news of attacks was more widely available and not limited to the US, and the Taliban deliberately increased the tempo of their campaign, continuously upgrading weapons and tactics and making life difficult for NATO.

This made it impossible to wind down Operation Enduring Freedom and led to the coexistence of two missions: the main US mission, integrated by various allies, and the NATO mission under ISAF. Having the same US general wearing both commanding hats, starting from 2007, was meant to better integrate operations. However, this eventually blurred political lines and did not improve the exchange of information between the two missions. To the contrary, the overall strategy became more confused, intelligence was compartmentalized and different military approaches coexisted, leading to growing inconsistency. This also produced a tendency for NATO allies to retreat to their main areas of operation, trying to bring sense to their own deployment through a “national” footprint and working on better cooperation amongst their own aid workers, military and diplomats.

At the same time the nature of the terrain and the geography of the country created serious perverse effects, caused by the military presence itself. The need to operate generators everywhere, for example, made it vital to have lines of supply coming either through Iran or Pakistan. In both cases, especially in the latter, this meant lavishly paying traffickers, armed groups and corrupt officials along the way, with resources eventually finding their way back to the Taliban. The same goes for weapons: already in 2008, it was apparent that weapons supplied to regular forces through massive contracts were often ending up with the Taliban through a web of sales, desertion and fraud. The US military presence was not only feeding the insurgency ideologically by posing as an apostate invader, it was also contributing to arming the insurgents in the most unexpected ways.


Surge, fight, exit

The McChrystal report in 2009, a brilliant appraisal from the US commander of both ISAF and OEF at that time, laid bare the contradictions of massive reliance on firepower and force protection, proposing a complete overhaul of tactics, but also suggesting a troop increase to consolidate gains and improve non-military action, with an understanding that force alone could not end the war.

Hence started the race to the ever-marginal force increase that eventually brought the US presence, with allies’ contributions, to more than 100,000 units. The cost of the effort skyrocketed and became hard to bear, even more so in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007. According to some estimates, at the height of the intervention, the US federal government was spending half of the Federal budget on the security sector writ large, including campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama appraised, correctly, that an exit strategy was necessary not to sink into a “forever war”. Three steps were necessary to go out with honour: kill Osama Bin Laden, strongarm his military into completing the mission, thus deflecting the underground blame on the President for lack of courage and a possible defeat, and finally manage a transition to a fully autonomous Afghan government, allied but not dependent on the US for survival. This in turn required reaching an understanding with a degraded Taliban insurgency to lay down arms following a political agreement, one in which both the insurgents and the government could decide how to deal with each other.


Competing for negotiations

That ending the war required some kind of agreement with the Taliban was a relatively early realization. A localized experiment came in 2006, when under ISAF Commander General David Richards (UK) local elders negotiated the exit of a trapped unit in Musa Qala (Helmand), in exchange for halting NATO operations in the area. The agreement was reached without prior US knowledge, which created havoc between the two allies and seriously angered the American chain of command. The truce in Musa Qala held for a while, but eventually fell.

Then, in March 2007, a fierce, rising Taliban commander, Mullah Dadullah, kidnapped an Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, and requested the liberation of five detained Taliban members to set him free. At the time, the notion of openly negotiating with the Taliban was unheard of and the deal, eventually struck (although the Taliban killed the driver and interpreter of Mastrogiacomo, with Dadullah himself being murdered shortly after), sent shockwaves through the international community.

In the aftermath of the event, turmoil followed in Italy and doctor and humanitarian Gino Strada, who had facilitated the deal, called for a peace conference including the Taliban to end the war. Both the Italian government and international allies reacted with scepticism and disbelief. The general perception was that negotiations would embolden the Taliban and that decisive military superiority was still necessary before any formal process could start.

Attempts at contact continued, though, if anything behind the scenes. In December 2007, around the time Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, a scandal exploded in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai suddenly expelled an Irish and a Northern Irish diplomat, the former with the EU Special Representative Office, the latter with the UN mission, for contacts with the Taliban, allegedly negotiating a covert deal on behalf of the UK, once again in Musa Qala.

It was the first time that official contacts with the Taliban emerged openly and this created a general realization that negotiating with the insurgents was the ultimate sign of statecraft in the Afghan context. The ensuing debate also showed that the process could not be a two-way street between the US and the Taliban alone, but had to be (at least) fourfold: with the US, the Taliban, the Afghan government and Pakistan. The entire story of the negotiations can be read in terms of the shifting balance among these main players.

With the expulsion of the foreign diplomats, Karzai made it clear that he would not tolerate any foreign interference with his own policy of tribal contacts, an intricate web of connections and allegiances meant to keep control of tribal loyalty networks towards the national government. This “Afghans first” approach had its own relevance for Karzai in terms of honour and credibility and was also meant to restate that he would not let himself be side-lined by contacts with Pakistan, either. Pakistan was the other natural, major interlocutor in tribal politics, sharing the Pashtun population from which the Taliban hail and having all sorts of links with the world of insurgency.

The US, however, soon realized that when it shared intelligence with the Afghan government, it did not stay watertight and the leaks were continuous, compromising the efforts on the ground. Hence, leading negotiations became a competitive issue, with both Karzai and the US trying to outmanoeuvre each other. Karzai wanted to avoid being dethroned and being perceived as a puppet by the Taliban, whereas the US did not want to subject their own blood and treasure to the scheming and timing of a leader and government they had come to perceive as corrupt and unreliable. Trust between the two sides was eventually lost. Personalities carried their weight, too. This became apparent when Obama had to deploy then Senator John Kerry as a de facto replacement for US envoy Richard Holbrooke, whose communication had ultimately broken down with the Afghan president. Kerry went on to oversee the transition from Karzai to the Ghani-Abdullah duopoly after the 2009 elections.

At that point, fighting the Taliban to reach definite superiority and forcing them into a deal that both they and the Afghan government would honour, was the next step envisaged by the Obama presidency. The turning point came with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, which clearly opened the exit path after 10 years of war.



Read Part 2