Afghanistan: Coming to the Bad End of the Good War

December 16, 2014

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from Jack Fairweather’s book, The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan (Basic Books, 2014).


A few weeks before President Obama was due to decide whether to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden – the reason America had invaded the country in the first place – was killed in Pakistan. Just after midnight on 2 May 2011, two Blackhawk helicopters approached a compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Obama sat anxiously in the White House Situation Room, watching the operation with his national security team courtesy of a scratchy video feed from a drone.

Within moments of reaching the compound, the carefully laid plan started to unravel. One of the helicopters was forced to perform a ditch landing after unexpected air currents had caused the pilot to clip his tail rotor against the compound wall. There were gasps in the Situation Room as the helicopter dropped briefly out of sight, before the feed resumed, showing the Navy SEAL team sprinting clear of the crash site.

They proceeded to secure the compound, killing a man who poked his head round a door. Three of the SEALs reached a metal gate in the compound wall. Beyond lay a second enclosed area and the darkened outline of what was clearly the main house. Entering the ground floor, the SEALs fired into a ground-floor bedroom, killing an unarmed man and woman. At the rear of the house, they found a stairwell with a locked metal gate leading to the first floor. This was destroyed with an explosive charge.

When they got to the top of the stairs, they finally glimpsed their target, a tall man in a tan gown, ducking into a side room. The lead SEAL fired off two shots, before he cautiously approached the room. Two women were standing at the entrance, and behind them a man was lying at the foot of a bed. Seeing the lead SEAL, one of the women, dishevelled and hysterical, launched herself at the point man, who drove her and the other woman back into a corner. The other two SEALs entered and observed bin Laden on the floor, twitching in his death throes from a bullet wound to the side of his head. The SEALs fired more bullets into his body until they were certain he was dead. After securing the rest of the floor, they returned to the corpse.

“I think this is our boy,” said one of the men, leaning over the body.

The killing of Osama bin Laden almost a decade after 9/11 brought to a close one of the longest manhunts in history. In the Obama administration the National Security Council imme­diately raised questions about Islamabad’s role in shielding bin Laden, as evidence came to light of his couriers’ links to other Pakistani militant groups and the ISI. Islamabad reacted angrily to the attack, which had taken place without its knowledge. The Americans had spent a long time wishing the relationship was something other than it was. Now it had fallen apart entirely.

More important, bin Laden’s death brought to many Americans a sense of closure to the war that had been waged in Afghanistan in the name of 9/11. The war had grown in complexity and required an entire armory of justifications to keep it going and strategies to win it, whether using Afghan warlords for security and a “light footprint” approach to reconstruction or full-blown nation-building and counter-insurgency. Yet when politicians had needed to explain to their sceptical public what the war was really about, they’d always come back to bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the idea that American troops were fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had distorted how the West saw the war. It hid the fact that U.S. soldiers were locked in battle with tribesmen, farmers and religious zealots in southern Afghanistan having taken sides in a civil war and regional dispute. Al-Qaeda remained a threat in the tribal hinterlands of Pakistan, one which had been greatly reduced by counterterrorism operations over the past ten years. While he was at large, bin Laden had loomed over the war, providing a constant sense of menace, even if his actual ability to carry out attacks was minimal. Once he was dead, however, the rationale for the Afghan war was gone.

The Obama administration went to great lengths to stress that the war itself wasn’t over, that al-Qaeda remained a danger, and that the West had a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. But such comments could not disguise the fact that Obama had never endorsed the interventionist argument that a nation-building programme was necessary for removing the threat extremists posed in Afghanistan. Indeed his presidency had taught him that Afghanistan merely needed to be contained.

Six weeks after bin Laden’s death, on 15 June 2011, Obama and his national security team met to decide the fate of the surge. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. had “basically thrown the Taliban out of their home turf in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.” Petraeus wanted to extend the surge beyond its July 2011 deadline. The relative success in the south had shown what could be achieved with more men. Maintaining troop levels would allow him to launch further offensives in the east and north. He proposed a token reduc­tion of around 5,000 troops by the end of the year, warning that drawing down any more than that would jeopardise all they had achieved. Yet an NSC review was sceptical, questioning the progress the military claimed. Another report from the CIA pointed out that squeezing the Taliban in the south had led to an increase in attacks elsewhere in the country. The mounting death toll cast a pall over discussions. By the end of 2011, some 1,234 American soldiers had been killed since the start of Obama’s presidency, compared with 630 in the previous seven years of war. For the UK, 247 had died since 2009, compared with 137 between 2001 and 2008.

At one point in early 2011, the debate over the drawdown threatened to become as rancorous as the one over the surge two years before, with the same battle lines drawn between the mili­tary and civilians. In response to some comments by Petraeus to NATO headquarters that questioned the timetable, Obama began to warn an NSC gathering, “If I believe I am being gamed…” before trailing off.

Gates was left fuming. “The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him it’s all about getting out,” he later said. At the time, though, he kept those thoughts to himself.

Obama listened to all points of view, but he had largely made up his mind: America must move on. The country was facing pressing challenges at home and abroad. It was costing the US taxpayers more than $100 billion a year to maintain the current deployment, $1 million for every soldier in Afghanistan. Over $1 trillion had been spent on the war so far. There were surely better ways to spend that money in the middle of a crippling recession. At the same time, the Arab awakenings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were forcing Americans to re-evaluate the Muslim world. Here was what looked like a new and authentic voice of protest against the region’s U.S.-supported regimes that seemed more relevant than al-Qaeda and the grim war in Afghanistan.

Indeed Obama wanted to get America out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. He was determined not to let his decision turn into another messy sideshow. So he decisively told Petraeus that he wanted 15,000 troops out by the end of the year, and the remaining 18,000 by the winter of 2014, at which point U.S. forces would hand over security responsibility to the Afghans. Petraeus, who was about to join the administration as the CIA director, seemed to pick up on the changed tone. But this didn’t stop him from bristling to the president that the accelerated withdrawal “invalidates my entire campaign plan.”

“David, you shouldn’t have assumed I wouldn’t do what I told the American people I would,” replied Obama.

A few days after his conversation with Petraeus, Obama gave a televised address to the nation. It was simple and sombre in tone, and unlike his intellectually incoherent address at West Point two years before to announce the surge, his words seemed like his own. The speech contained the obligatory and vaguely paternal plaudits to the Afghans for “establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls.” But Obama’s focus in the address was firmly on American interests. When it came to the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers, he did not gloss over their losses or the challenges many would face upon returning. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” he announced.

Time for Containment

The West’s grand experiment in the Good War was effectively lost in 2011 when Obama stuck to his deadline for ending the surge. The U.S. military had shown it could fight its way to a transient peace in Helmand and Kandahar. But the limited accord it achieved after ten years of fighting was not sustainable. The Taliban remained a viable force in most of the country’s provinces. Afghans still wanted what the West could offer in terms of recon­struction – but not at the cost of an endless war against the Taliban. Polling of Afghan views on the war was limited, but there was a widespread belief, voiced by President Hamid Karzai and others, that the U.S. military was deliberately provoking the war to prolong its military presence.

By 2012, the White House was concerned strictly with managing the U.S. withdrawal. All combat troops were scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014, after a progressive handover. A U.S. PowerPoint presentation laid out what the West hoped would be the “Key Tenets of the Afghan Narrative:” “2011/12 Notice what is different; 2012/13 Change has begun; 2013/14 Growing confidence; 2015 A new chance, a new beginning.”

Predictably, the transition proved messier and more traumatic than anticipated. When the U.S. tried to withdraw from Musa Qala in Helmand Province 2012, militants overwhelmed the local security forces and the marines had to temporarily move back in. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada stepped into the vacuum, plotted the removal of the police chief and seized power through a proxy. Soon even he lost control of parts of the district and in 2013 the town finally fell to tribal elements, some of them aligned with the Taliban. The U.S. military did not intervene this time, signalling that it had decided that Musa Qala – and by extension most of Helmand – wasn’t that important after all.

Meanwhile, at NATO headquarters the U.S. military began to envisage what Afghanistan would look like in the absence of Western troops. It was unclear how many soldiers would remain beyond 2014, but their numbers were likely to be greatly reduced, and removed from a front-line combat role. Coming so soon after the military had urged Obama to maintain the surge or risk the country falling into chaos, the drawdown revealed the hollowness of those claims. Senior American officers felt awkward closing down a mission they had argued so vociferously to expand. Yet there was also a certain relief that the country’s fate was more firmly in Afghan hands.

In fact, the fading of grand Western ambitions had already begun to empower a handful of international and Afghan officials to propose once-unimaginable diplomatic initiatives in some of the country’s most troubled regions. For instance, Lieutenant General Nick Carter had taken the initiative back in 2010 to re-engage with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s marginalized brother, to help secure Kandahar. The Americans had once considered Ahmed Wali to be an important power broker in the south, given that his offices were regularly packed with hundreds of key tribal leaders and politicians. But as the Americans grew disillusioned with Hamid Karzai, some rebranded Ahmed Wali as an exemplar of the corrupt, money-grubbing, drug-dealing warlord they were fighting against (though they kept him on the CIA payroll). When Carter recognized that the West needed a political process in Kandahar, he sought out Ahmed Wali as a regional partner. Together they created a council that reached out to tribes across the region, reintegrated Taliban commanders into the political process and demanded more resources from Kabul. Although Ahmed Wali was assassinated in 2011, the council survived as a model for creating an effective Afghan institution that was aligned with Afghan society.

Given the likelihood that large parts of Helmand would not be under the control of central government once Americans and British departed, Western officials could have used the success of Carter and Wali’s experimental council as the basis for a larger program to reintegrate tribal leaders and the Taliban into district government – and perhaps even grant them some local control. Yet this was rarely discussed as serious policy, with most policymakers preferring instead to hand over towns like Musa Qala and Sangin to the Afghan military and hope for the best.

Where the U.S. did seek to re-envisage its role was through broader peace talks with the Taliban – yet this effort was equally flawed. After Holbrooke’s death, the White House decided to take up his plan. According to one State Department official Hillary Clinton was won over by the promise of a development fund for Afghan women to help protect their rights. Yet when the Obama administration acted, it did so naively. First of all, there was a sideshow created by the British in 2010, when their intelligence agency unearthed a man they claimed was a member of Mullah Omar’s inner circle. Despite warnings from their US counterparts that he might be an ISI or Taliban double agent, the British insisted on paying him handsomely and whisking him to and from Kabul, meeting with Karzai and senior military officials. It turned out the man was a shopkeeper from Quetta. “It was a severe embar­rassment,” said one British official, “but our intentions were in the right place.”

The following year, Washington did track down the right Taliban interlocutors but the results were an even bigger disaster. The U.S. excluded Pakistan and the Taliban insisted on keeping out the Karzai administration. Washington began talks with Tayeb Agha, a top aide to Mullah Omar, in the neutral venue of Qatar without preconditions. In a show of good faith, the U.S. arranged to release some prisoners held in Afghan jails. The negotiations produced an agreement to let the Taliban establish a political office in Qatar.

That’s when the trouble began. In June 2013, the Taliban opened their new office with a flag-raising ceremony for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the name of Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled the country. It looked like the Taliban had just inaugurated a government-in-waiting. Karzai reacted furiously, breaking off bilateral talks with the Americans and threatening to boycott any peace process altogether. The office closed shortly thereafter.

Such negotiations were always going to be a long shot, given that the Taliban had never been the coherent entity the West had imagined. Even had senior military commanders like Mullah Zakir agreed to a ceasefire, a truce would stretch only so far without a national reconciliation process. No power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and the Taliban would address the country’s deep ethnic tensions or the reasons why many groups took up arms in the first place: the persecution of some tribes and groups by predatory and corrupt government officials.

The failure of the Taliban experiment in Qatar appeared to drain what little energy the Obama administration had left for Afghanistan. “Afghanistan has slipped down the list of priorities,” said one State Department official, echoing the mood in London. Washington and Karzai spent much of 2013 in a spat over whether U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Karzai requested that Obama write a letter apologizing for a litany of American mistakes over the past thirteen years. Obama, naturally, refused.

As for the British, in December 2013 David Cameron declared that UK forces could come home because the war was a case of “mission accomplished.” The prime minister’s declaration of victory amounted to an instruction to the British public to forget about Afghanistan. The war rapidly slipped down the political and media agendas. The fall of Musa Qala, once the focus of the British military’s anxiety about their standing in the world, barely registered in the national consciousness, and a desperate battle over Sangin in 2013, the site of so many British and American deaths, attracted little attention.

As the West prepared to withdraw most of their combat troops at the end of 2014, Washington had dispensed with the notion of good wars. This did not mean President Obama had ruled out the possibility of intervention in foreign conflict – as the U.S. support for NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya in 2011 demon­strated. But after the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, such involvement was likely to be limited. The armed forces had also retreated to a Colin Powell-esque doctrine of caution. “In my opinion, any future Defense Secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’” said the outgoing Robert Gates.

Containment and the Drone War

In place of the Good War, Washington began to embrace a doctrine of containment reminiscent of the Cold War policies that produced the covert wars after the end stage of Vietnam and the strategy of funding extremist groups in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. The Obama administration’s approach to Pakistan’s tribal regions indicated both how this doctrine prom­ised to shape the region and America’s likely approach to failing states going forward. America’s operations in Pakistan have been entirely covert and its diplomacy limited, with U.S. drone strikes the favored tool of engagement. The steady increase in the number of drone strikes in Pakistan prompted some debate in Washington about whether these operations were effective at preventing terrorist attacks in the West. There was ample evidence that they fuelled tensions across the entire region. One New America Foundation poll of the tribal areas in Pakistan found that almost half of respondents thought the drone strikes largely killed civilians, and the vast majority thought this was because the US was waging a war against the Muslim world. It was easy to see how they might come to this conclusion. Between 2004 and 2012 an estimated 1,562 to 2,377 people were killed by drones, 16 percent of whom were conservatively esti­mated to have been civilians.

The reasons for these high civilian casualty rates were rooted in the U.S. military’s methods for identifying drone targets. The military primarily relied on mobile phone and WiFi intercepts, swept up by drones and surveillance aircraft, to locate militants. Mobile phones belonging to suspected militants were then tracked ahead of a strike, an approach that fighters learned to thwart by using multiple phones, switching devices with other fighters, or even planting phones on their rivals. According to one former drone operator, strikes sometimes occurred with no way of verifying who was holding the phone. “In the early days – for our consciences – we wanted to know who we were killing before anyone pulled the trigger,” said Richard Blee in 2013, one of the heads of Alec Station, the CIA task force that tried to kill Osama bin Laden before 9/11. “Now we’re lighting up people all over the place.”

Criticism of the drone programme came from many quarters. In 2013, Stanley McChrystal was one of several prominent American officials who warned that the military’s over-reliance on drones was inflaming tensions between America and the rest of the world.

Malala Yousafzai, the sixteen-year-old activist infamously shot by the Taliban for her work promoting girls’ education, offered a civilian perspective. When Yousafzai met President Obama in October 2013, she warned him that drone attacks were creating more terrorism. She described lying on her rooftop in Waziristan at night and listening with dread to the ominous buzz of the drones overhead. One popular love song in the tribal areas of Pakistan went “my gaze is as fatal as a drone attack.” The people were angry and confused, she told Obama.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government complained that the drone policy set back its own efforts at reform. In November 2013, a drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, who had been in peace talks with Islamabad.

The Pakistani interior minister Chaudhry Nisar condemned the strike as a “drone attack on the peace process.”

Over the course of 2013, the Obama administration appeared to respond to the criticisms by reining back the programme and introducing stiffer targeting rules, which reduced the number of civilian casualties and improved accuracy. For a five-month period at the start of 2014, there were no strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, although they continued in Yemen and Somalia. At the same time the Pakistani military also launched its own, far less accurate air strikes during operations in Waziristan. In June 2014, U.S. drone strikes resumed in Pakistan.

The figures for the number of drone strikes in Afghanistan are less clear. According to one estimate there were 1,160 US drone strikes in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012. That number is likely to go down as US troops withdraw, but drones appear to be an enduring tool of US foreign policy to accompany Obama’s more pragmatic and limited definition of American vital interests overseas. At a West Point address in 2014, the same venue in which he had announced the largest troop surge in Afghanistan, Obama described America’s uneasy relationship with an unstable world. America would remain engaged, he insisted – and yet his own words were belied by the rapid disengagement from Afghanistan.

The White House’s position was no doubt informed by the fact that covert wars were a far more politically viable strategy of engagement than the kind of robust diplomacy and enduring mili­tary commitment necessary to achieve a negotiated peace. According to a 2013 CNN poll, only 17 percent of American respondents supported the Afghan war, down from 52 percent in 2008. At the same time, support for assassinations, such as those carried out by drones, was 69 percent, according to a poll conducted by Amy Zegart of Stanford University. Zegart has explained this steady tolerance for targeted killings by observing that covert wars by definition take place beyond public scrutiny.

And therein lie the dangers of covert wars: they never stimulate the level of public debate necessary to push policymakers to end them. Provided the West keeps money flowing and leaves behind enough forces to bolster the Afghan army and defend Kabul and Kandahar, the Afghan war may be contained. A limited Afghan government propped up with foreign money: this may be an outcome the West is prepared to accept. Yet the policy of containment has allowed the State Department, and by extension the White House, to abnegate its responsibility to bring together the different sides of the Afghan war, and with it the hope for an enduring peace.

The Irresistible Illusion

“The irresistible illusion” is how Rory Stewart, the former diplomat turned Conservative Member of Parliament, has characterized the draw of the Good War. That messianic vision is rooted in the belief that all societies aspire to achieve Western-style democ­racy and that promoting such democracies makes the world at once more secure and just. Western leaders have fallen in and out of love with this approach since at least the Cold War. But it became particularly seductive after 9/11 and led conservatives and liberals to unite in a shared conceit that Western military might could be wielded to transform Afghanistan in a Western image. The passing of that alliance should not be mourned. Indeed the fundamental lesson of this war is that the idea of the Good War should die with it.

This is not to diminish the war’s successes. When U.S. forces left, 85 percent of the country had access to basic medical care, compared to 9 percent under the Taliban. Seven million more children were in school, more than one-third of them girls, up from 1 million in 2001. The National Solidarity Programme continues as an important and largely uncorrupted vehicle for delivering small reconstruction projects. Those who knew the war-torn capital Kabul in 2001 can point to several glitzy malls, wedding halls and a vibrant media culture. The city’s population has tripled to over 3 million. Yet these advances have come at a cost of over $1 trillion and over 30,000 American, British, and Afghan lives.

Defenders of military intervention cite these victories and often ask: What’s the alternative? Afghanistan, they argue, would implode in destabilizing violence without Western intervention. This is precisely the kind of circular and self-justifying logic that compelled Western leaders to disastrously escalate the war, while ignoring the voices of a small but significant cross section of Western and Afghan officials who offered up achievable solutions that served the people. Indeed, after more than a decade of troop build-up, few Afghans equated the presence of NATO soldiers with security.

This is not an indictment of Western engagement with strug­gling states. Rather it is to argue against the assumption that military force can readily transform societies for the good. There is no great mystery as to why we continually fall for the attrac­tions of this idea. U.S. Special Forces and the Northern Alliance appeared to effortlessly brush aside the Taliban in 2001; Saddam Hussein’s statue came tumbling down in Baghdad eighteen months later. But the painful yet profound lesson of these wars – and particularly Afghanistan – is that the currents that change society move at a considered pace of their own making. That’s why the structure of Iraq’s police state, first created by the British in the 1930s, remained in place ninety years later, and why support for the Taliban, with its roots in Pashtun tribalism, was as strong in 2014 as it was on the eve of war in 2001.

The open question is: How should policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals who remain committed to engaging with the world’s dangerous countries proceed? Here the story of Afghanistan offers some hope and direction. The Afghan war taught us that order persists in even the most war-damaged societies and that the most sustainable solutions emerge when the inherent self-interest of these communities is engaged. Those solutions often emerge from the grass roots, especially in a country like Afghanistan that lacks a history of centralized government control. The challenge Western leaders face is to seek out those voices that reveal the internal order of these countries, and then listen to their wishes.

Indeed the West – specifically America – is arguably better positioned to make good on this promise in Afghanistan than at any point in its history. American diplomats and their allies have developed an unprecedented knowledge of the country’s politics. Military officers and soldiers have proved adept at mentoring the Afghan army and managing tribal relations. USAID has a finer understanding of how to scale its reconstruction work to Afghan needs.

Selling such an agenda will be a challenge for our future leaders. The idea of the Good War is deeply entwined in the Western psyche and is what gives voice to the idealistic notion that the developed world can lead less fortunate nations on the road to progress. Perhaps we would be well served to remember that ‘progress’ is a relative idea that history has demonstrated can almost never be imposed. As the former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, wrote after the Vietnam War, “We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experi­ence. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.”

The damage of these misconceptions in Afghanistan has been great. Yet even now it’s not too late to chart a different course.


Jack Fairweather is the author of The Good War. An award-winning journalist, he is currently a Middle East editor and correspondent for Bloomberg News. You can follow him on Twitter at @jackfairweather.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army