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.”

Afghans are perhaps not enjoying this transformation, much less understanding it. The war, after all, began with a clear enough goal – eliminate Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. We didn’t succeed through our own errors. We had bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, but the Bush Administration – under neoconservative pressure – moved the troops we needed there to the unprovoked, irrelevant war in Iraq. So off went unscathed bin Laden and his friends to help unleash al-Qaeda attacks in other parts of the world.
President Bush soon lost interest in bin Laden whom he had promised to catch “dead or alive.” Instead he launched a war on terror wherever it happened to be. Revenge was satisfied, and not just on one side. After being imprisoned in Guantanamo for seven years, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir warned, “I have a strong feeling of revenge in my heart. Until this fire of revenge is quenched, the jihad will continue.” In his recent book, “Little America,” about the hapless US occupation of Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes that Zakir under intense interrogation never revealed he was a top Taliban commander. On his release he returned to work with a vengeance. Don’t worry about controlling a lot of territory, he instructed his men. Just strike when appropriate, keep the Americans off balance and wait them out until they leave.

Did this war have to be? Was there no alternative? Yes, there was, but it wasn’t explored or was dismissed out of hand. Probably most Afghans didn’t want to go to war with the United States and weren’t even aware of bin Laden. But the leadership? On a late 2000 trip to Kabul for the Voice of America, I discovered fanaticism on display at the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice whose recruits scoured the city for any glimpse of female flesh or beardless men to be duly punished. I observed two malefactors hanged with bills stuffed into their mouths, signifying corruption.


But I was surprised not to find similar zealotry among some of the other ministers. They spoke freely with no obvious animus against the United States. Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, whom I considered droll and understated, told me: “We want to participate in world affairs. We want to travel abroad, and we want our airline to take us there. We want to work together with the international community on a variety of problems.” He offered a last minute proposal to the US to release bin Laden, but was turned down. “They must not have heard,” said President Bush. “There’s no negotiations.” “We never heard what they were trying to say,” complained Milt Bearden, CIA point man in the Afghan war against the Soviets.


When the US invaded, Muttawakil was interred for eighteen months until he was deemed to be useful by his captors and released to a well guarded house in Kabul. There he is visited by numerous US officials anxious to get a better idea of the Taliban. Nothing like knowing your enemy. The London Telegraph reports that Muttawakil’s “thinking is music to tired Western ears.” Perhaps they should have listened sooner.


Some other Taliban ministers talked the same reasonable way, though not Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, deputy interior minister in charge of the police and former intelligence chief. While hospitable, he looked and talked the part of the dedicated Taliban. The face of the enemy? Not exactly. He was working with us. Though I didn’t know it then, at great personal risk, he made trips to Pakistan in 1999 allegedly for medical treatment. There he contacted CIA agents and warned of a possible al-Qaeda attack on the United States. He also inquired if he could get US backing for a possible overthrow of the regime by moderates like himself. He was, after all, in control of thousands of police, many of whom were disillusioned with the Taliban.


He received a dismissive reply that casts some doubt on CIA recruitment practices: “We don’t want to make mistakes like we made in the holy war. We gave much help and later it went against us.” This cautious agent was of course referring to the war against the Soviets which the Afghans won with US aid, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. With that, the Americans abandoned Afghanistan to its post war chaos. In his abbreviated history, the agent omitted a number of steps leading to the current Taliban.


When the US war began, Khaksar once again tried to contact the CIA, which didn’t respond. Time magazine reported that he had some tantalizing information and was trying to warn US forces not to rely on tribal chieftains who were seeking revenge on their enemies. Americans would bog down in internal disputes. But disorganization reigns in the US embassy, said Time. Khaksar’s letters might be buried in a mailroom heap.


Khaksar also got together with anti-Taliban Abdul Haq, a top commander against the Soviets with a keen instinct for guerrilla warfare. Haq had struck deals with high-level moderates in the Taliban military, and six divisional commanders had agreed to turn over their units to him. After 9/11, he warned the US to put off bombing until these combined dissidents could act. He considered Mullah Omar and his small, tight clique ripe for a fall. Let Afghans do the job. But for reasons that remain perplexing – and have led to various conspiracy theories – he was soon trapped by the Taliban and executed.


Abdul Haq had it right, says Lucy Morgan in her book, “The Afghan Solution, the Inside Story of Abdul Haq.” In charge of reconstruction projects for several year and later political adviser to the EU ambassador in Afghanistan, she writes that Haq’s strategy didn’t provide the ck and awe” Americans demanded after 9/11. She quotes  US official: “We’re here to kill ragheads, and you’re trying to sell us a stable Afghanistan. We don’t care. We’re here for payback.”


Khaksar met a similar fate. Exposed as a traitor, he asked for some US protection, didn’t get it and was gunned down in the city of Kandahar in 2006. This only “solidifies our resolve that we must eradicate terrorism,” said a US military spokesman with the appropriate cliché.


Could the various Afghan dissidents with their military backing have overthrown Mullah Omar and ousted or killed bin Laden? It was surely worth a try given the alternative of a long futile war that is ending badly after much destruction. This, of course, would have required strategy instead of instant reaction. Some knowledge of history would have helped, such as the British and more recent Russia defeats in their efforts to subdue the Afghans.


A unilateral approach by the US is no longer sustainable, say less conventional observers. What’s required is a gathering of all neighbors and concerned powers to reach a settlement that would assure at least reasonable stability in Afghanistan; that is, a cessation of killing. Perfect democracy –  however defined –  is not in the cards. We can settle for something less. All the involved powers would of course be pursuing their own national interest – nothing new there. But it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of an agreement.


Writing in the The National Interest, Michael Hart, a Royal Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan, says its future will be determined by “neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West. Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia have the ability to project influence and power into Afghanistan.” In a report, “A New Way Forward,” the Afghanistan Study Group says “the United States should use its influence to reduce tensions among various regional actors – and especially India and Pakistan – in order to decrease their tendency to see Afghanistan as an arena for conflict. The United States should also place greater reliance on allies and partners whose ability to work with Afghans exceeds ours.”


If realistically we can’t “transform human history,” how about coming to terms with it?