David Sanger’s Week in Review article on Afghanistan war counterfactuals reminds me of a mystery I hope journalists and then historians will continue to explore:
Removing the Taliban from power in 2001 was deceptively easy, leading Washington to believe that the Afghans could largely take it from there. Fewer than a thousand American troops and C.I.A. officers, some on horseback, joined with the indigenous Northern Alliance to chase the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his forces out of Kabul. That would have been the moment, it is argued, to put 20,000 to 30,000 American troops — and perhaps a similar number of NATO forces — into the country as a stabilization force.
But Mr. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, wouldn’t hear of it. “The consensus was that little could be accomplished in Afghanistan given its history, culture and composition, and there would be little payoff beyond Afghanistan even if things there went better than expected,” Richard Haass, a senior official at the State Department in the Bush administration who advocated the insertion of a far larger force, wrote recently. “They had no appetite for on-the-ground nation building.”
The decision to under-invest in Afghanistan in order to facilitate invading Iraq was a moral and strategic blunder with no redeeming qualities. But Rumsfeld’s narrow argument that there was nothing feasible to accomplish in Afghanistan doesn’t strike me as crazy, though Haas’ contrary view is also plausible. Evidently, George W Bush agreed with Rumsfeld. But if this is what Bush and Rumsfeld thought, then how is it that the United States was still engaged in an open-ended, hazily defined war in Afghanistan all the way in 2007? The upshot of the “little to be accomplished” view should have been to find a way to “declare victory and go home.” But somehow Bush, and possibly Rumsfeld as well, seem to have talked themselves into the idea that it made sense to starve the Afghanistan deployment of resources and attention without curtailing its goals in any way. That’s just nuts.
At this point it’s generally recognized that the invasion of Iraq was a disaster, and it’s undeniable that we fell into the deepest recession of the postwar era on Bush’s watch, but the extent to which Bush’s Afghanistan policy was a total mess remains under-appreciated.