U.S. soldiers marched into Afghanistan with false information, a bad strategy and much arrogance. Not until later did they learn how the country and people in this complicated region operate, and in addition, President Bush made a disastrous mistake.
When the U.S. began the air war in Afghanistan scarcely a month after the terror attacks of Sept. 11 and supported the advance of the Northern Alliance, they could not have known much about the country. Four weeks after the beginning of combat, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the Taliban was equipped with tanks. He even alleged that thousands of these vehicles could await U.S. troops. He was mistaken. At the same time, he appeared astonished at the degree of affiliation between the Taliban and al-Qaida and said both groups were one in truth — and both must disappear.
In the meantime, Rumsfeld has disappeared politically and the Taliban has grown stronger; only the importance of al-Qaida in Afghanistan has rapidly decreased. Tanks did not surface in large quantities; they were found primarily on scrap heaps left behind by Soviet invaders. The Western nations had ten long years to become acquainted with the country, and they needed this time, too.
American policy in Afghanistan was particularly marked by ups and downs. It was Rumsfeld who wanted to try out his new military strategy and planned a sort of “invasion light.” Together with President George W. Bush and his security adviser Condoleezza Rice, he held the view that building a nation or political stabilization was not the job of the U.S. Instead, he reduced the deployment to a simple goal: driving out the Taliban. When Kabul then lay in the hands of the Northern Alliance in November and the Petersburg Conference elevated Hamid Karzai to interim president without the involvement of the Taliban on December 5, 2001, the U.S. mission seemed to have been fulfilled.
The first and greatest U.S. error in Afghanistan was the quick reorientation to the next theater of war: Iraq. At least until the end of 2003, nine months after the invasion, the Bush government underestimated the potential for danger emanating from the Taliban that had merely disappeared across the border into Pakistan. In Quetta, the leadership that had been driven out of Afghanistan could reposition itself and build up a military apparatus nearly unobserved. The West, meanwhile, was pleased with the new constitution of Afghanistan, the now actually elected President Karzai and the diverse peace meetings of the tribal elders in their colorful robes.
Considerably More Troops, Considerably More Politics
Only when NATO took over command in Afghanistan in 2003 (as compensation for the fight over the Iraq deployment) and deployed their own reconstruction teams in the provinces did the dangerous situation become visible: British, Dutch, Canadians and Americans were massively attacked in the south. The situation escalated year by year; in the summer of 2006 it almost came to the storming of Kandahar by the Taliban. NATO reacted with air attacks and put itself at odds with the population because civilian targets were too frequently bombed.
The resurgence of the Taliban was accompanied by the political indecision of the West: Should one strengthen the central government? How could the tribes and regional rulers be integrated? Financed by the growing drug business, the regional rulers — governors, police chiefs, military leaders — formulated their own demands while the U.N. and NATO sought to facilitate modern methods of governing in Kabul.
“Don’t Deceive Yourselves, We Are Losing This War”
The guerrilla war with the Taliban culminated in extreme violence in the year 2008, when then U.S. Commander David McKiernan warned point-blank: “Don’t deceive yourselves, we are losing this war.” McKiernan, who had written the first rebellion quelling strategy, was removed by newly-elected President Barack Obama shortly afterward. His demands, however, were fulfilled: considerably more troops, considerably more politics.
Obama demanded for the first time a closed concept for building the nation, for fighting rebellion and for a strong Afghan army. Before the first ten-thousand U.S. soldiers left Afghanistan this summer, the troops had swelled to 100,000 soldiers.
Although the soldiers were able to provide security in many provinces together with the now-trained Afghan units, it became clear that a solely Afghan concept would bring no peace. All attempts — above all, those of the deceased mediator Richard Holbrooke — to stop Pakistan’s destructive influence on the Taliban and with it Afghan stability, failed. Obama also had to realize: The closer he gets to the Afghan problem, the more complicated it becomes.