America for the past few years has tried in vain to extricate itself from Afghanistan. The fact is, however, try as we may, we seem to be pulled deeper into the situation. Our work with the Mujahedeen and Northern Alliance forces in defeating and driving Al Qaeda and Taliban forces out of the country within months of our entry into Operation Enduring Freedom seems a distant memory now.
Today, Afghanistan is sinking back into a quagmire of chaos; an atmosphere which encourages insurgent forces such as ISIS and a resurgent Taliban, while local rule by the strong trumps national order and security in most of the country. Graft and corruption, largely unheard of before 9/11, today is the norm. ‘Rule by warlord’ has to a great extent, remained triumphant over the square democracy, we have tried to force into a round hole. Last month, one of Afghanistan’s vice presidents, former Northern Alliance commander Rashid Dostum, kidnapped and held hostage one of his political opponents. The opposition candidate was kidnapped and held prisoner in one of his palaces in the northern city of Sheberghan. Something went wrong with our utopian view of what Afghanistan could be, and it is vitally important that we understand what that was.
With a new administration with a seemingly new philosophy vis-à-vis America’s role in world security and international relations, we have a chance to reconsider the manner in which we pursue future conflicts. It would be folly to assume there will be fewer rather than more world conflicts that directly and indirectly affect America. It would be further folly to assume America can stand on the sidelines in all such conflicts and hope to avoid negative repercussions of such a policy. In light of this, we must reevaluate the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and Afghanistan offers a perfect lab for study.
World War II was the last American military conflict from which soldiers returned en masse to tickertape parades and kisses from liberated strangers. A cursory examination of our nation’s response to “missions accomplished” since that time, however, provides a gauge of the level of satisfaction America has had with the manner in which we have executed extended missions in the interim.
Although our men and women are warmly welcomed home from Afghanistan, policy makers in Washington who stood in the wings and laid out the rules of engagement and the major steps in Operation Enduring Freedom, have once again earned a well-deserved thumbs-down.
Unfortunately, Washington’s policy makers who for political purposes have a burning desire to put their personal stamp on any American armed conflict have taken an operation which had accomplished its military objective in a short time and turned it into a decades long debacle, destined to end in an American withdrawal under less than favorable conditions.
American troops in short order in 2001, routed Al Qaeda and Taliban forces provided the Afghan people with a firm foundation for a stable democratic government if they chose to pursue it. To that point, Operation Enduring Freedom was conducted by individuals who knew the mission, had no personal objectives, were operating as one unit pursuing a single, common goal and were well equipped to see it to a successful completion. But, alas, sanity and common sense were not to prevail.
Military leaders — along with their experience and expertise — were rendered moot. The political gates were flung open and politicians of all stripes did what they do best; fighting to be first to the political feeding trough to snatch defeat from victorious jaws. In light of yet another missed opportunity, and yet another withdrawal under potentially questionable conditions, one must ask, “Why has America continued down this same path in every country in which we have found ourselves militarily embroiled throughout the past sixty odd years? What did we do wrong in Afghanistan, and who is to blame?”
Though the question may sound ambiguous — one which draws comments such as, “Oh, it’s complicated,” or, “There is really no answer,” or, the old tried and true, “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires and no nation can be successful there” — from the very individuals who were instrumental in orchestrating the failure, the simple answer is “a total lack of leadership” from the top.
Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in 2001 with a clear mission and a clearer objective. Afghanistan’s Taliban government was given an ultimatum by the American government which included the following demands:
- Deliver to the US all of the leaders of Al Qaeda; release all imprisoned foreign nationals;
- Close immediately every terrorist training camp;Hand over every terrorist and their supporters to appropriate authorities; and
- Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps for inspection.
When they refused, President George Bush ordered America’s 5th Special Forces Group into Afghanistan with orders to destroy terrorist training camps and infrastructure, capture Al Qaeda leaders and assure the cessation of terrorist activities in Afghanistan. By March 2002, the mission had been accomplished, along with the overthrow of the repressive Taliban government.
With American backing, Hamid Karzai took office as President of Afghanistan in December 2001, and in 2002 was approved for a two year term by a loya jirga (loya jirga, in Pashto meaning "grand council," a mass tribal elder meeting used in the past to choose kings or discuss important national political matters). As expected, when the first democratic elections were held, Karzai became the first elected President of Afghanistan in 2004.
Most analysts will agree that the first major mistake America made following the ouster of the Taliban government was backing Hamid Karzai as interim President. The second was insisting that the Afghan people accept a democratic form of government whether the wanted one or not, and the third was unilaterally pumping billions of dollars into an economy that had no idea how to deal with it. As a result, bribery and corruption; concepts thus far relatively foreign to the Afghan culture, became rampant and uncontrollable. Everyday working Afghans were urged into a democracy they neither understood nor had the time to work at.
Today in Afghanistan, most Afghans agree bribery and corruption have become entrenched in the daily operations of government to the point that a cessation of either will result in a total shutdown of any form of Afghan governmental functionality.
Though Islam as practiced in Afghanistan throughout history has many negatives from a non-Islamic perspective, the offense of asking for or offering a bribe had always been intolerable and basically unheard of in Afghanistan prior to 2002. Additionally, under the Taliban government, most forms of petty crime were unheard of. This is more understandable when one considers the fact that actual cash, and especially an abundant amount and unending source of actual cash, was rare in that country.
In spite of these mistakes, at the end of 2002, American troops had basically completed the mission they were assigned. America could very easily have withdrawn from Afghanistan at that point. While it is true some troops may have been needed longer to assist in training Afghan defense forces had they been asked, we did what we went there to do. The military commanders, who had been given the responsibility to accomplish this mission, based upon their expertise and relatively few if any personal objectives, did the job and did it well.
Unfortunately, as has been the case for recent decades and far too many contemporary military conflicts, once the dust has settled, rather than withdrawing from the country, our military was instead co-opted by a plethora of politicians and State Department “would be politicians” instituting unnecessarily complicated programs, the primary purpose of which was to allow these individuals to have had a hand in Operation Enduring Freedom and to have put their personal stamp on some facet of the mission. From this, the political term “nation building” was coined.
Control wastaken from those who knew what to do and given to those who had political connections but little knowledge about what to do. An apt analogy in this case is that of an all-powerful father giving a loaded gun to a spoiled 12 year old junior high school dropout and telling him to “go have fun.” There was, and still is, no single achievable objective. Everyone has their own little fiefdom and their own personal objectives, most of which are political.
A short list of the mistakes are readily observable; our politicians/diplomats allowed Karzai to take control of prisoners in Bagram and the eventual release of some of American soldiers’ most dangerous enemies in country. These policymakers allowed the Afghan government to dictate rules as to who American soldiers took into custody and shifted the level of proof for apprehension of these individuals to a US criminal prosecutorial scale and then dictated which officials in Afghanistan would be given authority rather than standing up to tyrants like Karzai.
Additionally, it seems every legislator in Washington was allowed to funnel “reconstruction cash” to favored constituents to “play” in Afghanistan, the result of which, as reported by SIGAR, (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), resulted in failed, useless or uncompleted and abandoned projects costing the American people billions.
American military leaders, with very few exceptions, would never have made such devastating decisions, even if they had been ordered to remain in country for an extended mission. Though it would be naïve to assume that there are no political ambitions among the ranks of the American military, the fact is these men and women are virtually incapable of making decisions detrimental to the missions they are assigned to complete, and few, if any would do something to unnecessarily jeopardize the lives of their troops.
Politicians on the other hand, are far too apt to make decisions based upon personal gain, and unfortunately for far too many of them, personal political gain is the deciding factor. When politicians and their associated bureaucrats fight wars, there is no risk; only gain.
Since Viet Nam, removing decision making authority from our military leaders and giving it to political leaders to the extent that has occurred, has tied the hands of our military leaders and resulted in the simplest of missions, becoming complicated to the point of being impossible to accomplish.
These errors have been made by many of America’s political leaders. This is not a Democrat or a Republican problem. Some of our most decisive leaders since WWII have been guilty of such errors. Even though President Bush famously declared, "Troop levels will be decided by our commanders on the ground, not by political figures in Washington, DC." He was not strong enough to keep Congress from usurping his decision-making authority.
As an example of the damage that can be done when decisions relating to military operations are taken away from the military commanders, the decision to escalate in Afghanistan, followed closely by President Obama’s ill-advised declaration that the surge would be a temporary measure, gave the Taliban reason to hope and took that same hope from many Afghans. Any momentum gained by American forces, prior to this announced date of withdrawal was lost, most analysts will agree.
The American people will support a war when our national and security interests are at stake and when the mission is pursued with meaning and clarity. Any semblance of any of those things disappeared in Afghanistan soon after our military leaders were rendered moot, and high ranking State Department officials or Senators from SouthCarolina or Nevada or California who had no idea how to find Afghanistan on a map were given the right to make war plans.
Finally, America’s shift in mission to some unexplainable form of counterinsurgency so late in the game — an entirely politically-driven decision — was doomed to failure from the start. High-ranking military leaders like Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Allen McChrystal, both adept at and extremely knowledgeable of counterinsurgency operations, were allowed minimal input into this decision. Most experts on counterinsurgency saw this move as having little possibility of success, especially when President Obama announced a specific date for withdrawal.
One would hope that some larger lessons have been learned, and that US Presidents in the future will be wiser and more willing to put political futures aside and more willing to shield their military leaders from interference. President elect-Trump’s embrace of the knowledge, experience and singular focus of our military leaders is a start.
America spends untold billions of dollars to train military leaders; a complete waste of time and money if politicians are going to direct combat operations. America can pursue necessary military missions and complete them in a timely fashion with minimal loss of life by simply allowing its leaders to control the mission.
But, the simple fact is, “when politicians and those in political positions are allowed to make military decisions, soldiers die unnecessarily and missions are complicated to the point of failure.”
Contributing Writer Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. He’s author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus.