It’s far, far too soon to write the history of the war in Afghanistan. In that regard, I’m reminded of the anecdote about the first meeting of Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai in the run-up to the historic Nixon visit to China. Dr Kissinger, knowing that Zhou Enlai was interested in history, is reputed to have asked him for his opinion about the impact the French Revolution, which had happened nearly 200 years earlier. Zhou’s famous answer was that is was too soon to tell. So it is with Afghanistan.
But it is not too early to start the process, and that has been done, in the USA, by the release of a damning report on the war. Here in Canada, Chris Alexander, who was Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan (2003) and then the United Nation’s deputy representative to ISAF (the US-led (NATO+) military force) from 2005 to 2009 and then Canada’s Minister of Immigration (in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government) from 2013 to 2015, has written an article for the Globe and Mail, that says that “our strategy was wrong.”
According to the Pentagon reports: ““We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”“
I have explained before that the military has things called the principles of war …
… the first or “master” principle of war is ‘Selection and Maintenance of the Aim.’ It says that you must understand what you are supposed to do and you must focus all your efforts on that. It is based on the wholly sensible notion that if you don’t know what you are trying to do you will never know if you have done it or not.
What was the aim of the US-led West? First, let me stipulate that a grand strategy ~ be in national or one applied by a group of nations like the US-led West ~ is much bigger than a simple military strategy. The US, but not the West, had a grand strategy in the year 2000. It was developed by a group called the Project for The New American Century. I’ve discussed it before, but I urge those who are interested to read more because it mattered … a lot, especially because it was, sometimes, hard to tell where the Project (often called PNAC) left off and the Bush (43) administration took over. PNAC’s aim was simple and clear. It was to remake the whole world in America’s image … or, at least, in the image that PNAC imagined was America. It seemed to me that George W Bush and many millions of America agreed with that aim. The aim rested, however, on one HUGE assumption that I (and many others) thought was wrong: democracy is, somehow, a natural state of affairs and Anglo-American liberal democracy can be exported. This is a very Wilsonian approach; it didn’t work in the 1920s and it didn’t work in the 2000s, either. (I urge those interested to read Walter Russell Mead’s ‘Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World‘ to learn more.)
It still seems to me that after the 9/11 attack both the US and the whole of the US led-West, including e.g. Jean Chrétien in Canada, were of a single mind. The aim was to rid the world of al Qaeda and of its leader, Osama bin Laden. Although al Qaeda was Saudi led and funded it was based in Afghanistan which, in turn, made Afghanistan a base for global Islamist terrorism. (That, ‘the base’ what al Qaeda means in Arabic, by the way.) The aim in 2000 and 2001 was pretty clear: destroy al Qaeda and, as a bonus, kill bin Laden. That was a good aim, one that even the weakest and/or most obtuse military commander could grasp and, probably, accomplish.
But it changed.
First, as Chris Alexander explains, Western leaders (and soldiers) were willfully blind to Pakistan’s role (sanctioned, I suspect, by China) which was to support, actively, al Qaeda and give sanctuary to bin Laden. In other words, we were fighting a regional alliance ~ Afghanistan was just part of the ‘battlespace’ ~ and our lines of communications, our main supply routes, lay in enemy territory … but we refused to recognize that Pakistan (and, arguably, by extension, China) and Saudi Arabia, too, were big parts of the enemy alliance.
Second, it became clear that in many Western nations the militarily sensible aim of destroying al Qaeda, and, therefore, by implication, killing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of young Afghan, African, Arab and West Asian men, was not popular. People, voters, in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark and so on, and including in America, too, wanted to do more. They wanted to help. And so came “nation-building.” Now, George W Bush said, very sensibly, in October of 2000, just as the invasion of Afghanistan was getting started, that “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” But no one cared that he, at least, had the aim right. The elites wanted nation-building and so the US-led West embarked on a voyage towards strategic failure.
Osama bin Laden is dead; al Qaeda is no more, but bin Laden was replaced and al Qaeda morphed into Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS and other groups like Boko Haram and al–Shabaab. Why? Because, pretty clearly, we didn’t achieve the aim. Al Qaeda wasn’t destroyed, it was just shifted a bit.
One of the reasons we failed was because instead of destroying, of totally shattering the entire radical, anti-Western Islamist movement ~ which I acknowledge would have involved destroying much of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, too ~ we went on a war to export
democracy the American Way. We failed because, either:
- It cannot be exported unless and until the importing country has reformed itself so that it has the sorts of institutions that we take for granted in Australia, Britain, Canada and Demark, and in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, too, I hasten to add; and/or
- We didn’t (likely still don’t) know how to build nations.
I tend to believe that both happened but I think that we, most of us anyway, fail to understand the importance of institutions. We can build schools and hospitals and dams, but they will only work when the people who both operate and use them follow a few rules … and those rules, as some commentators explain, are not understood or accepted as being valid by all of us, especially not those who cultures are not European or, better, Scandinavian, or best Anglo-American. Trying to export
liberal democracy the Ameican Way to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, as they are now, was a fool’s errand. Their entire cultures need to change, radically (think 16th and 17th century Europe) and that will take decades generations to accomplish … and they will be terribly bloody decades generations, too.
We could have started the process but, as President Bush understood, we weren’t sending the right people. He got it right at first … he appointed a sort of proconsul but he didn’t have either the authority or the mandate to tell the military to stabilize the country (conquer it in simple terms ~ in the way that Germany was conquered in 1945) and then provide security while the Euro-American and Asian private sector (which was never invited in) changed the economy and built factories and schools and, and, and …
Many people assume because they see that the military can be very efficient and effective at tasks like disaster relief, because it has expert logisticians and lost of strong people and big trucks, that the military is ideally suited to do ‘nation-building.’ Those who do assume that are wrong. It’s not that the military is inefficient or ineffective ~ although many military forces are ~ it’s just that the military is optimized for something else, as President George W Bush said, “to fight and win war.“
But, did we “lose” in Afghanistan? My short answer is yes. But, why did we “lose” in Afghanistan? I think the answer is that we never understood what a “win” might look like. We did not understand our own aim … in fact, it’s not clear to me that after 2003/04 we even had an aim that made any strategic or military or political sense.
Chris Alexander blames the Iraq war for the “loss” in Afghanistan. It was a contributing factor in that it was a big part in blurring and, eventually, losing sight of the aim. There was nothing wrong with the soldiers, especially not the Canadians nor the Aussies, Brits, Danes, Kiwis and so on. Some, ours especially, were better than others but that was a product of intensive training and good discipline. The generals weren’t the problem, either, although some, including many of our Canadians, including some of our colonels, too …
… were much better than others. The problem, the reason we lost, was 100% political and bureaucratic. The entire US-led West was deeply divided … we, the leaders and the people, lost the plot. The proper aim was to administer an exemplary defeat to (radical Islamist, in this specific case) international terrorism … to send all would-be attackers scurrying back to their rich family compounds to seethe in their hatred for a generation or two. Instead, we were humiliated and, arguably, defeated … what is not arguable is that we did not defeat the enemy ~ which is why one goes to war.
I think that Chris Alexander mistakes the political processes and machinations that went on in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Canberra and Ottawa from 2004 to 2014 for a strategy that didn’t work. I think that, after 2004, there was no strategy at all except for a political one than said “how do we get out of here with some shred of self-respect?” There was no way so we stayed and stayed and stayed until it was obvious to one and all that it was past time to come home. For a decade we, Americans, Brits, Canadians, Danes and so on, wandered about Afghanistan … aimlessly.
We had an aim in 1940. Winston Churchill told, Brits (and Canadians and Indians, too) that “We shall never surrender!” It was brave defiance in the face of a dangerous enemy. President Roosevelt had an aim, too ~ to
defeat crush destroy, utterly, the German-Italian-Japanese axis ~ and both he and Churchill made sure that the people knew and the admirals and generals knew and understood and supported those aims. I think George W Bush and Jean Chrétien had a reasonable and achievable aim in 2000 and 2001 … but I also believe that they changed it or forgot it or ignored it and then, inevitably, lost the war.
P.S. There’s a difference between losing battles and losing the war. We, the US-led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) won most of the battles ~ our soldiers were, quite simply, orders of magnitude better, braver and tougher than the Taliban and their allies. Despite that, Berlin, Canberra, Copenhagen, London, Ottawa and, above all, Washington lost the war.
Edited to add:
P.P.S. News (or journalism), it is often said, is the first, rough draft of history. That’s what both Chris Alexander and the U.S. Defence community have done ~ this is “news,” rather than “hard” history. There is still plenty of time, years, decades and even centuries for historians and analysts of various sorts to sift through the ashes and conclude that we or they did nor did not win or lose, and to tell us why.