Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

by Joshua Tucker on May 24, 2013 · 10 comments

in Foreign Policy,International Security,Journal Collaboration,Transitions,Violence

The following is the first in our series of collaborations with journals to feature guests posts from authors of recently published political science research in conjunction with ungated access to the article that is being discussed.

The guest post is written by political scientist Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa (@rolandparis).  An ungated version of his article is being made available temporarily by Cambridge University Press here.

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In the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics, I have a review essay based on four books that offer insights into “what went wrong” with the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan after 2001.

The books, which are all excellent, approach the subject from different vantage points.  Astri Suhrke’s When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan examines the internal tensions and contradictions of the overall international effort.  Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan focuses more narrowly on the US military and civilian “surge” in 2010 and 2011.  In Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, Noah Coburn conducts a micro-level analysis of the politics in one village near Kabul during the international mission.  Finally, Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is a macro-history of Afghan politics and governance from pre-modern times to the present.

In spite of their differences, all of the books point to similar, underlying dysfunctions in the international mission.  The first dysfunction was the interveners’ inadequate understanding and knowledge of Afghan society.  Again and again, the authors point to cases of international action rendered ineffectual or counterproductive due to a lack of familiarity with the political and social environment. From the highest levels of decision making to the micro-dynamics of military patrols and aid projects, foreign organizations and officials seemed to be almost handicapped by their own ignorance of the country.

The second dysfunction was the persistent short-termism of international policymaking.  At each major juncture, decision makers seemed to reach for the most expedient fixes without fully considering the context or consequences of their actions.  This pattern was already visible during the 2001 invasion, when the United States paid Afghan militias to intercept fleeing Al Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora, rather than sending American forces—a costly decision, since the militias turned out to be less than fully committed to the task.  Then there was the Bush administration’s lack of interest in devising plans for Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition, and its eagerness to delegate this task to others, based in part on the assumption that the “problem” of Afghanistan had been largely resolved by the defeat of the Taliban regime.  Next came the UN-sponsored conference at Bonn, which produced an agreement for a political transition process.  This agreement, however, was reached “hastily, by people who did not adequately represent all key constituencies in Afghanistan,” as Brahimi, who chaired the meeting, wrote in a contrite essay seven years later.  With US and UN backing, moreover, the Bonn plan yielded a highly centralized system of government that was ill-adapted to the country’s needs.  Meanwhile, Washington had rejected the idea of deploying ISAF outside Kabul and refused to allow US counterterrorist forces to be used for “nation-building” purposes.  All of these actions reflected wishful thinking— or, more precisely, a dearth of serious thinking—about the viability and long-term implications of these decisions.

This mind-set continued in subsequent years.  As conditions worsened and the scale and scope of the operation slowly expanded, there was little reflection on the underlying assumptions of the mission.  When the US government, long distracted by the situation in Iraq, shifted its attention back to Afghanistan in 2008, decision making became more urgent, but was no less short-sighted. “Again and again,” writes Suhrke, “it was hoped that the latest change in strategy and personnel or increase in aid would be the silver bullet.”  I saw this for myself during visits to Kandahar and Kabul in December 2008 and January 2010.  Activity was intense, almost frantic, and driven by a sense that little time remained to “turn the situation around.”  But exactly how this would be achieved, and to what end, were never clear.  Even after President Obama entered office and conducted a lengthy policy review that resulted in a sharp escalation of US forces, these questions remained largely unanswered:  How would the United States convince the insurgency to capitulate or negotiate?  How would it persuade Afghan villagers to side publicly with ISAF and the Kabul government?  What, in short, was the purpose of the surge?  More broadly, why did the international operation, with its minimalist start and late escalation, seem so strangely out of sync with conditions on the ground?

If “strategy” is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim, there appeared to be little strategy guiding the international operation in Afghanistan.  Instead, reliance on a series of quick fixes seemed to substitute for strategic thinking—or tactics without strategy.  I conclude the essay by discussing the dangers of repeating these errors and drawing the wrong lessons from the Afghanistan episode.

You can access the entire essay for free until June 23, 2013.

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