The Limitations of U.S. Policy

Unfortunately, the policies of the Bush administration were premised on a number of overly optimistic assumptions, and with the passage of time, it became clear that the challenges that remained in Afghanistan were substantially greater than the United States appreciated. Although it was undoubtedly the case that the bulk of the Afghan population welcomed the appearance of international forces in 2001 as a way of freeing them from the domination of the Pakistan- backed Taliban, they remained skeptical of the Western commitment to support them in the longer term. The foolish decision of the Bush administration in March 2002 to block the expansion beyond Kabul of the International Security Assistance Force,14 for which the Bonn Agreement had provided, deprived Afghanistan’s transition of critical momentum at a crucial moment. The Bush administration’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq then compounded this problem, sucking oxygen out of the Afghan theater of operations in vast quantities. As Admiral Michael G. Mullen (chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff) put it in 2007, “In Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq we do what we must.”15 When a country has experienced the traumas to which Afghanistan had been exposed, it needs to be nursed back to health with the utmost care. Instead, it rapidly became marginalized as a focus of U.S. attention.

This drift of focus saw the Taliban threat come back to life, together with radical groups such as the Hezb-e Islami and the so-called Haqqani network. There is no doubt that this revival was nurtured by Pakistan; indeed, one source has quoted the Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, describing one of the most prominent members of the Haqqani network, Jalaluddin Haqqani, as a “strategic asset.”16 Whereas the Taliban regime had been wiped out in late 2001, the Taliban leadership had not; on the contrary, its key members had escaped to Pakistan, where they soon found a welcoming embrace. From the second half of 2002, attacks in Kabul and other Afghan cities resumed, and the Iraq distraction provided additional impetus for circles in Pakistan to conclude that the Taliban had not lost their value as an instrument of asymmetric warfare. At the same time, the memory of Washington’s stark demarche to Islamabad in late 2001 was allowed to fade, and it was replaced with a policy of “positive” incentives for Pakistan that saw billions of U.S. dollars supplied to Islamabad, even though Taliban operations from sanctuaries in Pakistan were escalating.17 Astoundingly, this continued even after the Pakistani president Musharraf candidly stated in

Kabul in August 2007, “There is no doubt Afghan militants are supported from Pakistan soil. The problem that you have in your region is because support is provided from our side.”18 Abundant evidence surfaced of this support,19 and a June 2010 report based on interviews with Taliban commanders made it clear that Pakistan’s ISI was itself heavily involved in backing the Afghan Taliban.20

President Bush seems to have placed undue reliance on his personal relationship with Musharraf as a means of controlling Pakistan’s behavior and to have severely underestimated the capacity for duplicity in the Pakistani leadership. Earlier Republican presidents had been more alert to these dangers. Indeed, in his memoirs, the former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz told an illuminating story about a conversation between President Reagan and the Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq at the time of the 1988 Geneva Accords: “I heard the president ask Zia how he would handle the fact that they would be violating their agreement. Zia replied that they would ‘just lie about it. We’ve been denying our activities there for eight years.’ ”21 There are lessons here for any U.S. president seeking to deal with the Pakistan military.

There were two additional areas in which the Bush approach was to prove defective. One related to the issue of reconstruction. Although aid projects may have desirable developmental outcomes, there is very little evidence that aid since 2001 has generated positive political benefits for the Afghan government.22 On the whole, the Bush administration supported a top-down approach to aid, which privileged the central state at the expense of local communities and set the scene for legitimacy problems if the state failed to deliver.23 Yet it also looked for quick results, which militated against an inclusive process of indigenous capacity building. This had extremely detrimental long-term consequences. Monies flooded into Afghanistan with less-than-adequate financial control mechanisms in place and much of the time bypassed the state altogether, going to private commercial contractors charging exorbitant fees and to Afghan “fixers,” often connected by lineage ties to figures in the Kabul elite, who positioned themselves to get a piece of the action. Given the weakness of the rule of law, there could hardly have been a better recipe for the emergence of corruption and the abuse of power.24 In the minds of many Afghans, these negative features of the transition tended to overshadow its achievements, and this was strikingly demonstrated in poll data: whereas 64 percent of Afghans surveyed by the Asia Foundation in 2004 felt that the country was moving in the right direction, by 2009 this had fallen to 42 percent.25

The other area related to the personalization of politics under President Karzai. The Bush administration—much taken with Karzai’s initial popularity—backed the establishment of a strong presidential system, which offered an obvious point of access for U.S. influence. The merits of a parliamentary system attracted little attention, and when the Constitution of 2004 was adopted, it was not so much a constitution for Afghanistan as a “constitution for Karzai.”26 At the time of the 2004 presidential election, a view that one often heard was that a victory for Karzai would empower him to dispense with the “warlords” whom he had had to accept as part of the Bonn Agreement and instead assemble a cabinet of expert technocrats who could increasingly take over the responsibility for administering the country. But things did not work out in quite that way. One of Karzai’s first steps was to dispense with the outstanding technocrat in his government, the finance minister Dr. Ashraf Ghani, and he followed this up by removing the respected foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. This was not out of respect for the new parliament, elected in September 2005, but rather a reflection of a patrimonial political style that saw increasing power exercised by cronies of the president rather than holders of cabinet office. The failings of the presidential system were by no means all Karzai’s fault, but as time went by, Karzai’s strengths were of decreasing relevance to Afghanistan’s problems, and his weaknesses in the areas of policy development and implementation were more relevant. This set the scene for a plunge in his popularity and for a range of political maneu- verings that then resulted. This was to prove one of the most toxic poisons in the chalice that President Obama inherited.

As a junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama made his reputation as a staunch critic of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. By contrast, he strongly supported the 2001 operation to overthrow the Taliban. “With justice at our backs and the world by our side,” he later wrote, “we drove the Taliban government out of Kabul in just over a month.”27 His critique of the Iraq war was multidimensional, but one element was that “the war in Afghanistan was far from complete.”28 This did not, however, mean that he claimed specific expertise about Afghanistan’s complexities. His meeting during a summer 2008 visit to Afghanistan with Gul Agha Sherzai, one of the most deeply suspect figures with whom Karzai and his U.S. patrons were associated,29 suggested that he was still coming to terms with Afghanistan’s political terrain. Nonetheless, upon his inauguration, he brought an openness to new ways of viewing the

Afghanistan situation and a willingness to engage in a fundamental review of how the situation in Afghanistan might be improved.30 This set the agenda for most of his first year in office.

 
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