From now on, the headlines about Afghanistan will be slugged “Obama’s War,” and perhaps that is fair enough given the president’s many endorsements of what he has called a war of necessity. It would be much less fair, however, to ignore the events that led us to this moment, when whatever choice he makes will offer no great guarantee of progress and no small prospect of trouble.
Those events began with the inexplicable decision by officials of the previous administration to allow Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other ranking leaders of Al Qaeda to escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001. At the time, as a new Senate report on the battle of Tora Bora recalls, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, and Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, decided not to augment the tiny force of special operations troops on the ground with sufficient force to capture or kill Mr. bin Laden and his deputies. They later claimed to be worried that “too many American troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency,” a rationale that can only evoke bitter laughter now.
None of the reasons offered back then for inaction at Tora Bora made sense after the outrage of 9/11, when the entire world, including the Afghan people, were cheering the U.S. invasion. The pattern of deception that later led to war in Iraq began with expressions of doubt by both General Franks and Vice President Dick Cheney about Mr. bin Laden’s presence in Tora Bora—a doubt that none of the commanders on the ground shared and that always sounded more like an excuse than an explanation. If there was any chance that the perpetrators of 9/11 could be found in those mountains, then maximum force should have been deployed as rapidly as possible.
What we know now, of course, is that Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld, and President Bush himself were distracted from the vital necessity of victory in Afghanistan—which meant not only driving out the Taliban but installing a real government in their place—by their obsession with Iraq. Not only did the Al Qaeda leadership escape, but so did Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, who returned to mount a threatening insurgency two years later, just as the Bush White House and the Pentagon were declaring “mission accomplished” in Baghdad. The resulting neglect of Afghanistan—with all the corruption, disillusionment and anger that has ensued—had reached a critical stage when the Bush administration finally departed. Their own commanders were left behind to warn Mr. Obama that the enemy had gained the upper hand.
No further recrimination is necessary; history will render sterner judgments than any that can be written now. But after eight years of incompetence and arrogance, how can the United States salvage what has become of the “good war”?
Escalation appears to be as self-defeating as it is inevitable. If the secretary of defense worried in 2001 that a few thousand Americans in Tora Bora would enrage the Afghan population, how will that population react to the presence of nearly 200,000 foreign troops next year? The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan further inflames suspicions of American domination not only in that country but across the Muslim world—as the war in Iraq also did—and especially in strategically vulnerable Pakistan.
As investigative reporter Aram Roston recently revealed in a cover story for The Nation, the Afghan countryside is already so deeply permeated by the Taliban that contractors shipping logistical supplies to our troops routinely bribe the enemy to allow safe passage. Military sources estimated that the payoffs amounted to as much as 10 percent of the cash value of those shipments. So if we spend another $30 billion a year to send in additional troops, roughly $3 billion will end up in the coffers of the Taliban, far more than they need to buy the ammunition and explosives that kill our soldiers.
Even Mr. Obama seems to recognize the futility of the situation. Perhaps he is raising the ante in order to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, the same objective apparently shared by our allies in Europe and the discredited government in Afghanistan. Unsatisfactory as that would be, it is a legacy of the same politicians who now urge our troops to march resolutely into the deadly mess they made.
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