Attacking Afghanistan

The September 11, 2001, attack swung America into a foreign policy engagement cycle. Americans backed their 43rd president in his march against the phantom-like terrorist circuit hosted by Afghanistan. President Bush set in motion several initiatives to target al Qaeda and its mastermind. He convened a War Cabinet of his top policy makers in the White House’s Situation Room on September 13. The president wanted to eliminate the terrorist perpetrators in their Afghanistan liar. Unexpectedly, George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence (i.e. the head of CIA), outlined a plan for an immediate attack on al Qaeda and their Taliban protectors. A few days later at the presidential retreat Camp David, Tenet and Cofer Black, the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, fleshed out the Agency’s strategy using PowerPoint slides. It envisioned an innovative mix of CIA field officers on the ground, Special Operation Forces working with local militias, and heavy bombing from US Air Force and Navy planes.

The Pentagon was caught largely flatfooted with no prepared contingency plan for an intervention into Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry B. Shelton, offered a bombing and Tomahawk missile strategy to deal with the threat. But the Clinton appointee’s recommendations were judged inadequate to eradicate the terrorist scourge from the remote country. Indeed, Shelton’s plan smacked of the former administration’s failed “cruise missile” response to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, when mostly deserted Afghan camps were blown up.18 So, the president and civilian officials at the Pentagon adopted the CIA playbook with some modifications.

The Agency augmented its contacts with intelligence services in such unsavory countries as Libya, Syria, and Uzbekistan—all with abysmal human rights records. The Bush administration felt justified supping with devils, even if long spoons were not used. The CIA also engaged in a range of anti-terrorist actions, some of which became controversial in time, such as “black sites” or secret prisons in foreign countries used to detain, interrogate, and water-board suspected terrorists. Additionally, Langley acquired covert bases from which to loft drones (remotely piloted aircraft) for surveillance and strike missions to rub out terrorists or insurgents in

Afghanistan and Pakistan, plus Yemen. At the request of George Tenet, President Bush signed a series of intelligence memoranda authorizing the CIA under Title 50 of the US Code to conduct covert and lethal operations against al Qaeda.19 Thus, Bush’s muscular course of action departed substantially from Clinton’s law enforcement orientation, which relied on forensic evidence, arrest, legal procedures, and jury trials to deal with terrorism.

For the intervention into Afghanistan, George Bush’s strategy called for CIA field officers to enter Afghanistan first and establish contact with the anti-Taliban movement. The Northern Alliance had been fighting the Pashtun-dominated Taliban since 1996 when the radical Islamist movement took over Kabul. The CIA operatives came armed with millions in $100 bills to hand out to the local militia chiefs. Some of the American intelligence personnel had long-standing relations with local chieftains, providing them familiarity with local forces and the country itself.20 Once on the ground, the SOF called in airstrikes and worked with Northern Alliance militias against the Taliban fighters.

This triumvirate of airstrikes, Special Forces, and local, pro-American militias proved to be a winning and cost-effective combination. It routed the Taliban’s disorganized and ill-trained rifle-toting irregulars. The small US military footprint heralded an innovative counterterrorism prescrip - tion that later served as a template for similar American operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. Nevertheless, it failed to get Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, who escaped over the border into Pakistan, where they engineered a comeback in Afghanistan three years later.

The swiftness of the victory caught the United States unprepared for a governance role in Afghanistan. Nor had Washington officials given much thought about the political structure or the reconstruction of a post- Taliban state. Days before the commencement of bombing on October 7, President Bush asked his national security affairs advisor: “Who will run the country?” Condoleezza Rice admitted that no real thought had been given to the question.21 In fact, the security adviser, like many of her fellow Vulcans—as the Bush foreign policy team termed themselves—opposed the use of US military forces for peacekeeping or society-building. Their preoccupation was regime change.22 They held the previous Clinton administration in contempt for its stability-soldiering missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The planning void for the post-invasion period was an ominous omission first for Afghanistan and later Iraq, which placed both occupations in jeopardy from raging anti-American insurgencies.

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