As a general rule, I like to see articles reminding us that US Afghanistan policy over the decades has been short-sighted and too-lightly informed. But Steve Coll's In Search of SuccessNew Yorker 05/25/09 (accessed 05/18/09) defines the problem is a strange way:
The miscalculations across five Administrations are by now generally understood: near-unequivocal support for anti-American militias during the nineteen-eighties; averted eyes as Pakistan pursued its covert nuclear ambitions; the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal; the failure to recognize the menace of Al Qaeda during the nineteen-nineties; erratic investments in Pakistan’s democracy, economy, and civil society; and, most recently, a war in Afghanistan after 9/11 which did not defeat Al Qaeda or the Taliban but chased them into Pakistan, where they regrouped and have proceeded to destabilize a country now endowed with atomic bombs.
I have several problems with that description.
The miscalculations don't seem to me to be well understood by our policymakers, much less the Congress and forget about our celebrity press corps.
As foolish as it was to celebrate Afghan tribal warlords and an international jihadists flocking to Afghanistan in the 1980s as brave, courageous, fiercely-independent freedom-fighters, it's at best a half-truth to say they were "anti-American" in the 1980s. The United States was supplying them with arms to fight their main enemy of the time, the Soviet Union. The jihadist ideology that developed around that fight was also anti-American. But that ideology was not what was driving the tribal warlords who conducted most of the fighting.
It's reasonable to say that US policymakers "averted eyes as Pakistan pursued its covert nuclear ambitions". A critical factor that is missing from most discussions like Cole's is the role Pakistan saw and sees Afghanistan playing in its long-running conflict with India. And while the desire to keep the cooperation of Pakistan's military in supplying the Afghan mujaheddin played a role in tolerating Pakistan's nuclear bomb program, the failure to take full account of the South Asian context of Pakistan-vs.-India over Kashmir actually seems to be a more significant problem in terms of how it has distorted American policy toward Afghanistan. Tolerating Pakistan's nuclear program has been more of a toxic side-effect of our Afghanistan policy.
This idea about "the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal" has become boilerplate in US policy discussions of this period. But what does that really mean? The US didn't have troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Does it mean that we should have tried to replace the Soviet occupation with the USSR withdrew? After the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan still had a Communist government. Does it mean we should have aided the pro-Soviet Communist government that we had been supplying the mujaheddin for years to fight? I'm willing to think that the story in Afghanistan might have played out differently. But since the country was wracked with recurring civil war up until the Taliban took power, it's hard to picture what we would have done that would have constituted not-abandoning Afghanistan. The "abandonment of Afghanistan" has become a cliche without content.
I was especially struck by "the failure to recognize the menace of Al Qaeda during the nineteen-nineties". Failure by whom? The Clinton administration certainly recognized the danger of Al Qa'ida. Who is Coll talking about?
He names "investments in Pakistan’s democracy, economy, and civil society" as a generally acknowledged problem. I assume he means inadequate investment by the US and NATO. But it's not clear what he does mean. And US policy had had a long-term chronic bent toward preferring military governments in Pakistan.
And he frames the Afghanistan War as "a war in Afghanistan after 9/11 which did not defeat Al Qaeda or the Taliban but chased them into Pakistan, where they regrouped and have proceeded to destabilize a country now endowed with atomic bombs". This is a very flawed framework. For one thing, giving the Cheney-Bush administration its due on the matter, the initial weeks of war actually did destroy a large part of the Al Qa'ida infrastructure and killed a lot of their most experienced cadres. It wasn't as focused as it could have been, as described at the time by Philip Smucker in How Bin Laden Got AwayChristian Science Monitor 03/04/02.
But the Taliban government was ousted from power in Kabul. The Pushtun groups today coded as "Taliban" by the military and media are only in small part the same group known as the Taliban in 2001. And the notion that Al Qa'ida and the Taliban have destabilized Pakistan is some combination of war propaganda and customary American preference for military over civilian governments in Pakistan.
Al Qa'ida-style jihadism has a continuing life, in no small part thanks to the Cheney-Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, their crusading anti-Islamic rhetoric and their torture program. But jihadism is a phenomenon of small groups around the world, not a worldwide conspiracy directed by Bin Laden or his original Al Qa'ida group. It's not at all clear to me that the "Al Qa'ida" of 2001 still exists. But as long as our press corps let American officials get away with depicting Al Qa'ida as some massive army of terrorists operating worldwide and presenting a threat on a par with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union, the public will not have a clear picture of what the military is actually doing over there. Coll uncritically quotes our Savior-General David Petraeus saying:
Al Qaeda, in particular, has sustained some very serious losses over the course of the last six to ten months or so, and there is a considerable concern among those leaders because of the losses that they have sustained.
How many times has the Pentagon announced crippling blows against "Al Qa'ida"? How many times have we captured or killed the "number two man" or "number three man" of "Al Qa'ida"?
A very good book about money written in the language of the 1970s version of alternative non-profit groups postulated that money is a dream. And that if you pursue something that is a dream in itself, you become a dream. As hippie-dippie as that may sound, there's something to it. In a more nitty-gritty sense, analysts following the anti-terrorism efforts of the West German government against domestic terrorists like the Rote Armee Fraktion in the 1970s and following years, sometimes talked about the concept of the RAF in particular as "a phantom". Steve Coll's own book about the early part of the Afghanistan War was called Ghost Wars.
The threat of the Al Qa'ida organization that had just attacked the USS Cole in late 2000 was very real at the time of the transition from the Clinton to the Cheney-Bush administration. And it was understood to be a concrete threat and the government had some realistic sense of the threat it posed. The Clinton administration did, anyway.
But when our Savior-General Petraeus in 2009 makes the latest in an endless series of pronouncements about our glorious victories over "Al Qa'ida", I'm not confident that he's talking about anything more than a propaganda construction, a dream, a phantom. And trying to conduct a war against a phantom dream can only end up as a nightmare.