Victory Was Possible in the Afghan War

Tora Bora. The name isn’t engraved in U.S. history, but it should be, says Peggy Noonan in her weekly column for The Wall Street Journal. She writes that in this mountainous region full of caves on the Pakistan border Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11, was making his last stand under heavy U.S. bombardment. It was just a matter of time before U.S. troops would seize or kill him, and he was drawing up his will. The war would be over in a few weeks. Mission accomplished.


Then, astonishingly, writes Noonan, U.S. troops were not supplied but were sent instead to fight the planned war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, where he survived as an icon of error for another ten years until killed in a Navy Seal raid. Deprived of their target, U.S. policy makers assumed the larger task of conquering Afghanistan and turning it into a replica of American democracy.

What were U.S. policy makers thinking? asks Noonan. Incompetence and the fog of war may partially explain the blunder. But was there something else? There were those in Washington, she writes, who may have felt it was too soon to seize bin Laden since it might weaken support for the invasion of Iraq, their basic goal. Noonan doesn’t name them, but the so-called neocons, who figure prominently in U.S. foreign policy, wanted to remove Saddam Hussein as an enemy of both Israel and the US. The war gave them an opportunity at the cost of its lasting another twenty years.

Coincidentally, in the same issue of The Wall Street Journal, a leading neocon, Paul Wolfowtitz, says this longest war may not have been long enough. He writes that given low U.S casualties, a war can go on forever to help keep America safe.  He fails to mention how others may feel about endless wars destroying their homelands and peoples. Also unmentioned is his own role as U.S. deputy defense secretary in the Bush Administration in providing false information leading to the invasion of Iraq. Contrary to his assurances, Iraq had no link to 9/11 and was not building weapons of mass destruction. 

Oddly, the crisis of 9/11 did not lead to a concentration on strategic thinking that largely characterized Cold War policy. Rather impulse and emotion seemed to prevail. In his book “Bush At War,” Bob Woodward quotes a U.S. counter-intelligence chief predicting to a doubtful Russian: “We’re going to kill them.We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” Forever wars are not conducive to balanced judgment.

Afghans Betrayed

U.S. treatment of Afghans in the unending war has been a mixture of confusion and indifference. Friends and enemies may be indistinguishable, the friend today may be the enemy tomorrow in multi-faceted Afghanistan. How is a hapless Washington bureaucrat going to keep up with all of this? That said, Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi was clearly on our side.

A decorated helicopter pilot, he has logged thousands of flight hours and is said to have destroyed more of the enemy than anyone else in the Afghan air force. In response the Taliban have threatened his life on the ground. They told his father hand over your son or we’ll kill your entire family.

Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi

Knowing the threat is serious, Major Asadi asked for asylum in the U.S. and apparently it was granted. But just before he and his wife and daughter were about to board a plane to the U.S., the decision was reversed on Washington orders. The reason? Like so much else in the Afghan war it was unclear. But orders are orders.

Now Asadi is in hiding no less a target of Taliban wrath.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar was intelligence chief of the Taliban until its leader Mullah Omar had some doubts and demoted him to deputy interior minister, where he still had control of a large police force. When I met him in Kabul on an assignment for Voice of America a year before 9/11, he seemed friendly and hospitable but clearly the voice of the Taliban.

No so. At great personal risk, he was in contact with the CIA and was furnishing not only useful information but plans on how he and other defecting Taliban leaders could link with an anti-Taliban military force and overthrow Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. He told Kathy Gannon, a top reporter covering Afghanistan: “There were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who didn’t want the foreign fighters, who wanted them gone. But with no help from the outside, we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar

With the war underway, he offered information on where bin Laden might be found. That too was ignored. Knowing he was now an obvious target of the Taliban, he asked for some protection from the U.S. He was turned down and soon executed by the Taliban in the city of Kandahar.

Mullah Khaksar of the past and Major Asadi of today may serve as bookends for a  war that didn’t have to be, and their plight can symbolize what a beautiful country and proud people have endured.

Toppling the Buddhas

Two giant stone Buddhas towered majestically over the Afghan terrain, marking the thriving Buddhist community below. In time, Islam replaced Buddhism, and the mighty carvings were less revered, in fact occasionally threatened. But it took the fiercely dogmatic Taliban to decide their time had come. From their perspective the figures were an affront to Islam.

But driving out this last symbol of Buddhism was no easy task. Chains or ropes would hardly do, considering one statue was 180 feet high, the other 125. The job was entrusted to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which normally dealt with human executions but was ready to take on Buddhism. For fire power, it assembled artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, but the combined assault only produced a few chips.

To get serious, the Taliban rounded up a couple dozen prisoners who were told to bring in the dynamite. One of them, Mirza Hussein, years later told BBC: “We were chosen because there was nobody else. We could be disposed of at any time” – like the Buddhas. One in fact was shot because a bad leg kept him from hauling explosives. For twenty-five days they painstakingly stuffed the dynamite into every available crevice, sometimes drilling holes to make room. Protests from outside were unavailing.

When the statues were finally reduced to rubble, the Taliban rejoiced, dancing, firing their weapons into the air and slaughtering nine cows as a sacrifice. But Hussein was not happy with what he had done. Nor was most of Afghanistan and for that matter the rest of the world. Not just a religion had been obliterated but a crucial part of Afghan heritage. How much did the Taliban care for the country they were intent on ruling?

Giant standing Buddhas of Bamiyan still cast shadows, Sgt. Ken Scar, 17 June 2012

Was the demolition also a signal? Taliban chief Mullah Omar liked to explain that the statues were destroyed to keep the U.S. from threatening his country. If he had no qualms about obliterating a major monument in Afghanistan, why hesitate to do the same to America via bin Laden? Despite the Afghan blast heard round the world and the warnings of dissident Taliban leaders, Washington was not listening. Six months later on 9/11 the World Trade Center at massive human cost joined the Buddhas.

Fighting But Not To Win

Hawkish members of Congress and the media have seized on possible intelligence indicating that Russia is paying bonuses to Taliban who kill Americans. Even if it’s true – and it may not be – it’s a pittance compared to the resources the U.S poured into the effort to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the l980’s by aiding the rebel Mujahideen. It’s a policy that worked and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s no possibility of Russia coming back or even wanting to. Putin, a strict nationalist, hardly compares to the communist Soviet regime spreading a murderous ideology around the world. Yet he has been elevated to the status of foreign devil of the moment by Washingtonians yearning for battle at least from the armchair. Chief among these are the so-called neoconservatives who have managed to play a central role in the foreign policy of the last four Presidencies – Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump – exhibiting a knack for political survival while promoting a series of misguided wars.

It began with Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. The perpetrator Osama bin Laden had been harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. So the U.S. made a crushing attack on the Taliban and bin Laden was within easy reach. But under neocon pressure, troops were not supplied to keep him from escaping across the border to Pakistan. Instead they were diverted to Bush’s main preoccupation Iraq, where a war was launched on a variety of false pretexts.

With bin Laden still at large, the Bush White House felt free to take on Afghanistan. It was only a matter of weeks, a top anti-terrorism adviser told the Russians: “We’re going to kill them We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” But as the Russians found out and before them Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the British, nobody successfully invades Afghanistan. That now includes the U.S., which today faces an enemy as strong as ever.

The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842, by William Barnes Wollen (1898).

Early on Bush proclaimed, “You’re for us or against us.” There was nothing in between, which includes most of humanity, and at the time two top Taliban leaders who were seeking to overthrow the harsh rule of Mullah Omar and form a government that would be true to Islam and also acceptable to the outside world. They spoke the language of moderation.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar had been a founder of the Taliban but at great personal risk he went to Pakistan in 1999 on the pretext of receiving medical treatment. In fact, he was there to meet CIA agents to seek U.S. help for the new government he envisioned. He had over a thousand police at his disposal and an alliance with the forces of a top anti-Taliban commander.

But he spoke in vain, as did Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who warned the U.S. of an upcoming bin Laden attack. On arriving in Kabul, the Americans continued to ignore both well-placed defectors. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months and underwent mild torture. Khaksar asked for protection. It was denied and he was killed by his Taliban enemies. If aided, could they have succeeded and spared the U.S. its longest war?

There’s a tendency to conflate the wars before and after 9/11, but they’re not the same. Judge them as you will, the pre-9/11 conflicts all had a clear purpose: escaping British rule, ending slavery, expanding America, defeating a bellicose Germany, stopping the spread of Soviet communism. Post 9/11 wars, while ceaseless, have only a cloudy or shifting purpose, Afghanistan being the prime example. Its unpopularity rivals that of the Vietnam War with this difference: there’s no draft. U.S. combat deaths remain limited while Afghan casualties, military and civilian. continue to climb. So popular outrage is muted and the war goes on.

Did we have to go to war in Afghanistan?

Though the Afghan war has now lasted over fourteen years, it’s still unclear why we are fighting it. Absent are the ringing appeals for freedom and democracy. The outlook is more subdued. The late Richard Holbrooke, deeply involved in our policy – such as it was – had a vague notion of success: “We will know it when we see it.” General David Petraeus, former commander of US troops in Afghanistan and temporarily CIA director, didn’t even envision success: “I think you keep fighting. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably kids’ lives.” Right you are, said Senator John McCain at the last Republican convention: “Success at home also depends on our leadership in the world. It is our willingness to shape world events for the better that has kept us safe, increased our prosperity, preserved our liberty and transformed human history.”

Continue reading “Did we have to go to war in Afghanistan?”

Afghanistan Struggles to Shake Off Foreign Influences and Rebuild National Unity

Although the Taleban are removed from power, they continue to fight the government that replaced them. They are abetted by Pakistani sympathizers, and other foreign countries also complicate life for Afghans and undermine their efforts to achieve a viable peace. In the last of a three-part series, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the outside pressures on a divided Afghanistan and its response.

Overthrowing the Taleban has brought freedom to Afghanistan but a shaky government. A new constitution is being written and elections are scheduled for next year, but underlying forces are shaping events.

Continue reading “Afghanistan Struggles to Shake Off Foreign Influences and Rebuild National Unity”

America Needs a Development Plan for Afghanistan Today

ON A RECENT TRIP to Afghanistan, many Afghans asked me: “What’s the American plan for us?” I said I didn’t know and I didn’t know anyone who knows. There’s remarkably little discussion of Afghanistan, and that includes among American presidential candidates, who rarely mention the subject. It is almost as if Afghanistan were an afterthought, an annoying obstacle on the way to remaking the Middle East.

And Osama bin Laden? That man, apparently untroubled by the U.S., is now well entrenched and, from all reports, growing stronger in the lawless region stretching from eastern Afghanistan over the mountains into western Pakistan and planning who knows what.

According to Ali Jalali, former interior minister under Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a possible successor to him, there was no postwar plan: the idea was to mop up fast and not worry too much about the aftermath.

But there is no end in sight to the six-year war that now has lasted longer than World War II. The resurgent Taliban are making gains, especially in the south, where British troops defeat them in battle—but then the poorly paid and trained Afghan army troops assigned to hold the territory fail to do so.

We don’t have enough troops there, says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who should know. Combined U.S. and NATO forces add up to some 50,000, as against the Taliban’s estimated 15,000 to 20,000—not enough of an advantage to defeat an insurgency.

The lack of ground troops leads to a greater reliance on air attack, which inevitably takes civilian lives. The United Nations reports that in 2007 U.S., NATO and Afghan firepower killed more civilians, including children, than did the insurgents. President Karzai has repeatedly objected to this on the grounds of inhumanity and flawed strategy. There is no faster way to recruit insurgents who have witnessed the deaths of their loved ones.

Given this military impasse, there are increasing calls, notably by President Karzai, for negotiations with Taliban who might be agreeable to some kind of political settlement. Former Taliban leaders in Kabul have been enlisted in this effort, among them former foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, whom I met on a trip to Afghanistan in 1999 for the Voice of America. He struck me then as a rather droll, understated fellow and a probable moderate. That has proved to be the case.

Another negotiator is Abdul Salam Zaeev, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He has written a book, so far published in Pushtu and Urdu, about the harsh treatment—e.g., torture—he received at the hands of Americans in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. In a recent interview in Kabul, he told me he looks forward to an Islamic government in Afghanistan but one that moderates the harsher aspects of Taliban rule and is acceptable to the majority of Muslims.

The effort has had one major success. A key Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Salaam, has defected in the south along with many of the insurgents under his control. He has been put in charge of the area he once threatened. How many others will follow his example remains to be seen. A successful counter-insurgency, say observers, depends on dealing with Afghanistan’s ever enduring tribes, who even though they do not figure in conventional democratic theory, may well decide the fate of Afghanistan.

Despite the tensions and uncertain future, Afghans do not appear anxious—far from it. In teeming, boisterous Kabul, they are busy at work in all sorts of small shops that stretch as far as the eye can see. Moreover, it’s possible to spend three weeks in the country—outside the areas of combat—and never experience a rude word or sullen look. On the contrary, while disappointed with U.S. policy—promises, they say, that have not been kept—Afghans are very friendly and hospitable toward Americans. They don’t come in contact with that many, however. U.S. Embassy employees are not allowed outside the compound except with special permission and an armed guard in an armored car.

Indeed, “security companies are having a ball,” says Wali Sherzai, an Afghan-American director of a construction firm, Technologists Inc. Armed guards are everywhere. I asked one if he thought this was overkill, in a manner of speaking. Maybe so, he said, but it’s when you get complacent that things happen. Taliban leaders claim they have plenty of infiltrators in Kabul. “That’s not an idle boast,” according to Sherzai. “Anyone could be an informer. It’s become part of life to look for suspicious people.”

The Afghan economy has grown substantially since the Americans arrived, providing more food, roads, schools and health clinics. For the first time in decades it’s possible to see a procession of girls on their way to school, though attacks on them are increasing and many schools have closed. A severe shortage of electricity and running water continues throughout the country. In overpopulated Kabul, Afghans build modest mud homes on the surrounding mountains and must carry water and other supplies up a steep incline.

Economic progress may now be stalling, however. Investment from abroad was flowing until competent financial managers were replaced by their opposite. “Corruption is mind boggling,” says Abdul Ali Seraj, an Afghan-American who plans to run for president this year. “When you go to the smallest office, they will squeeze you dry of every dime.”

Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, is charged with establishing an effective legal system in Afghanistan, a tall order. He and his colleagues have trained some 1,300 lawyers and judges, but when they return to their provinces, they come under other kinds of pressure. They are paid little. Their courtroom may be an abandoned garage. And if they defy the local strongmen to enforce the law, their lives may be in danger. Indeed, a few judges have been killed.

According to Nasir Shansab, the Afghan-American author of Soviet Expansion in the Third World: Afghanistan a Case Study, says Afghanistan has never been a nation of laws as such, but tribal elders administering informal justice were able to maintain a tolerable level of lawlessness.


Now the responsible elders have been overtaken by so-called warlords, many of them veterans of the war against the Soviets. Many of the governors appointed by President Karzai have used the office to create a terror of their own by stealing, smuggling, trafficking in drugs and even illegally exporting the country’s natural resources. President Karzai, Afghans say, while charming and conciliatory, fails to use the power at his disposal and confront them.

Harsh, But Not Corrupt

As a result, some Afghans look back almost nostalgically on Taliban rule. Harsh it was, but not corrupt. Punishment for theft was at least a lashing, probably the loss of a hand, maybe even a life. There was a weekly public execution, one of which I attended. Two men were hanged with bills stuffed into their mouths, signifying corruption.

On my 1999 trip, I met Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, a robust, very hospitable deputy interior minister and former intelligence chief. Judging from his talk amid a fruit-laden banquet at his home, I considered him a dedicated Taliban—but it turned out he had been in contact with U.S. intelligence officials across the border in Pakistan. They, however, seemed to have doubts about him and kept him at a distance. That was a grave mistake, says Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon, who thinks Mullah Khaksar might have revealed some of Osama bin Laden’s plans. Denied the protection he sought from the U.S. Embassy, he was gunned down in Kandahar while walking with his two children.

So far, the Afghan north has been largely spared this kind of violence. In peaceful times it could be a center of tourism. To the west, Herat, under the influence of neighboring Iran, seems almost oblivious to danger. In contrast to Kabul, people are on the streets at night, including women, often without burkas. Also unlike Kabul, Herat has 24-hour-a-day electricity, sufficient water and largely paved roads, much of this courtesy of Iran—suggesting that Tehran could contribute to stability in Afghanistan if Washington sought its help instead of threatening to attack it.

On paper at least, Washington has big plans for Afghanistan. The idea is to overhaul everything in keeping with democratic ambitions. But there are limits, say close observers of the embattled country. In an interview in Maclean’s magazine, Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between, about his colorful mid-winter trek across Afghanistan, cautions that “the international community is simultaneously trying to fight the Taliban, create a liberal democracy, exterminate narcotics, build a strong central government and defend human rights.” That, he says, is too much. “There is a surreal gap between the language of the international community and our performance.”

For instance, Afghanistan’s opium production, which provides some 90 percent of the world’s heroin, is a huge problem. But much of it comes from Helmand province in the south, where insurgents are strongest. Unless and until they’re suppressed, there’s little point trying to eliminate the opium under their control. An adroit diplomacy is called for that is not now in evidence. Afghans say Americans must learn to deal in shades of grey—those Taliban who can be peeled away from the more extreme.

If one big project were launched in each province with the offer of plentiful jobs, says legal reformer Wadir Safi, that could end the insurgency—though, to be sure, it would have to be accompanied by adequate security. My former interpreter, Azam Said Mohammad, now chairman of the business consulting firm Kite Communication, says Americans, while invaders, are not considered occupiers. Why don’t they make a shining example of Afghanistan, a signal to Muslims around the world that America cares? After the massive destruction of World War II, the United States restored Western Europe with its all-encompassing Marshall Plan. Could it not do the same in a single shattered country today? It is a task not above America, says Azam, if America wants to do it.

Considering the skimping on Afghanistan—aid per capita is among the lowest of any international development program since World War II—a Marshall Plan seems a distant prospect. But at least it’s a plan. Let’s reassure Afghans and ourselves. Let’s have a plan.
Ed Warner is now retired from the Voice of America, where he was in charge of a unit that provided analysis of foreign affairs.