The Three Bad Decisions Made In Afghanistan

Don't blame Canada for what went wrong argues Steve Saideman.
By: /
April 20, 2012

The CIC hosted a discussion on Afghanistan, asking what caused the NATO mission to fail there. Well, it might be premature to say that the mission failed as NATO has not fled in defeat quite yet, just as it is premature to say the U.S. ultimately succeeded in Iraq. The answer depends on how you define the question, which was not entirely clear, as Margaret MacMillan pointed out in her interview. If the mission after 2001 was to build a self-sustaining Afghanistan, then it was not quite doomed to fail but it certainly faced a mightily difficult challenge.

But before moving onward, one key point stands out: Canada was not the only country operating and struggling in Afghanistan. We can blame Ottawa for how Canada handled the operation but responsibility for mission failure, if and when it occurs, lies in the region and at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The focus here is on the Afghanistan question. Considering Canada’s efforts and what we can learn from them is a topic for another day.

So, if the goal was to build a semi-stable Afghanistan, why hasn’t it worked?  In large part because the task was very, very hard.  Afghanistan does not have oil to fund both national and local governments.  The country was broken by the Soviet invasion, the ensuing civil war and the brutal Taliban regime, so the mission’s starting point was quite low.  There were few existing institutions to build on, generations of people with traumatic stress, and not much in the way of resources.

This is then combined with one of the toughest challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries: insurgency, as Bob Bothwell noted in his interview.  Yes, insurgents have been defeated, but most counter-insurgency efforts are long, costly and have low probabilities of success. In 2001, Afghanistan had all of the features that make an insurgency not only likely to occur but to also be quite successful: difficult terrain, abundance of illicit goods to fund the effort (poppies), poverty, inequality, corruption, bothersome neighbours and a weak government.  Fighting a successful counter-insurgency campaign requires many things that were in short supply: patience, cooperative neighbours, and strong indigenous leadership on which to build.

Patience was always going to be an issue given the abundance of democracies involved in the war, all of whom routinely had elections to contend with at home.  Unfortunately, much time was wasted in the war’s early years.  The Americans were distracted by Iraq, so they did not invest sufficient military or diplomatic resources early on, as Roland Paris noted in his interview.  Indeed, the mandate from Bush/Rumsfeld was to do as little as possible so that the forces and resources could be focused on Iraq.  The new ISAF mission, eventually taken up by NATO, only covered Kabul at first and was explicitly not a counter-insurgency effort until, well, very recently.  So, when people say “we have been doing this for 10 years, we should have something to show for it,” it ignores the reality that NATO has only being engaged in counter-insurgency since 2006 and only a properly resourced COIN campaign for about two or three years.

The second problem is Pakistan.  Not only did the Taliban and Haqqani networks find it safe to operate, recover, train, and plan within Pakistan, but NATO’s opponents also received significant material assistance from Pakistan.  Arms, supplies, information and more came from a country that is supposed to be an American ally.  As Bill Graham noted in his interview, the role of Pakistan is crucial here for giving the Taliban life when it was near death and then abetting the insurgents once they had recovered from the American intervention in 2001.  To be sure, neighbours often tolerate insurgents residing on their territory for a variety of reasons and Pakistan had limited control over these regions, but Pakistan went beyond tolerating and condoning the Taliban to fostering and facilitating them.

The third problem has been President Karzai.  To be fair, the man has long been in a difficult spot.  He had to rely on warlords across the country to have any influence outside of Kabul.  Corruption was a key means to keep these folks on board.  So, we cannot blame Karzai for every failure of the Afghan government.  What we can blame Karzai for is never owning the war.  Yes, the war was run by NATO and the Americans, but the war has been fought on behalf of his government.  Instead of standing in front and arguing why the war was necessary and why the mistakes made by the strangers must be tolerated, Karzai essentially used the international community for domestic political purposes.  His re-election campaign centered on NATO collateral damage rather than the folks causing the majority of destruction and harm – the Taliban.  Yes, he only did what it took to stay in power, but there were multiple ways to do that and Karzai seems to have chosen those that were most likely to endanger the war effort.  While the West is there for their interests, they are also fighting on his behalf, but he has rarely acted like it.

So, Canadians can and should criticize their government for falling short of expectations, but we need to be fair about what was expected.  NATO is failing in Afghanistan, not just Canada (whose departure from Kandahar did NATO no favors).  Why?  Because fighting an insurgency is damned difficult even if you do everything right.  But the U.S. burned a lot of time during the early stages of the war, making it even more difficult to build a government with leaders barely inclined to actually govern in a country where the neighbours are eager to undermine the international community. When we speak of mistakes, we refer to decisions that could have been made differently.  While fighting in Afghanistan would be hard under any circumstances, the three big bad decisions were for the U.S. to invade Iraq, for Pakistan to support the insurgents, and for Karzai to run against NATO and ISAF rather than with it.

Photo courtesy of Reuters