What should have been a punitive expedition degenerated into nation-building. We must kill al-Qaeda and get out.

By Michael Scheuer

As America emerges from the eighth winter of the Afghan War, it is appropriate to ask how we got to this point—that is, how we moved from a mandatory punitive expedition to an unnecessary and already lost war—and then ask how we can craft a strategy that will protect U.S. interests.

There is no point in blaming any particular individual or group for the difficult situation we face in Afghanistan. We are all to blame—politicians, military leaders, the media, the citizenry, and perhaps most of all the academy—because we have little knowledge of and less respect for history. It seldom tells you what to do, but history does offer a world-class education in what actions have failed in the past.

After the 9/11 attacks, our perpetually adolescent governing elite crafted a military response in a self-imposed ahistorical vacuum. The plan that emerged played to our military strengths, confronted the enemy as we defined him, and sought a postwar Afghan environment that meshed with our own political values and mechanisms.

We sought to prove the viability of “light and fast forces,” few in number and armed with the most modern weaponry, and we sought to prove war could be fought with few casualties on either side and almost none among civilians. We defined the enemy as finite in number, fanatic in temperament, amateurish in military capabilities, and utterly unrelated to any genuine religious faith. Finally, we sought to install a secular democratic political system on a deeply insular, conservative, and tribal Muslim society, and we neglected to establish a nationwide security regime in place of the Taliban law-and-order system we destroyed, apparently thinking the Afghans yearned more for voting than security.

The events of the past 92 months have proven that we should have taken the counsel of history—both ours and the enemy’s.

Our light and fast forces were far too small to occupy and administer Afghanistan, a country as large as Texas and home to some of Earth’s tallest mountains. History could have told us that the British and Soviet empires failed in prolonged occupations with forces far larger and much more ruthless than ours. Our precision weapons performed well but only when we had enough Marines and soldiers to crawl through the mud and snow to locate targets. In the 1980s, the Soviets found that their most modern weapons systems were no substitute for substantial ground forces. Moscow had up to 120,000 men on the ground, and that force could not even keep open the key Kabul-to-Qandahar highway, let alone achieve anything that could be remotely called victory. .

The enemy in Afghanistan turned out to be drawn from an unlimited personnel pool; to be blessed with patience, fortitude, and a strategic sense; to be competent insurgent fighters who learned from their mistakes and adapted to their enemy’s method of operation; and to be inspired by a profound religious faith. History could have told us that Alexander the Great, the Queen Empress of India, and several
Bolshevik dictators encountered the same formidable enemy and ultimately lost.

As for our secular democracy, the Afghan people utterly rejected it because they identified it as a threat to Islam—man’s law would replace God’s—and as a method for destroying their two-millennia-old tribal society. They wanted nothing from the invading forces except a security regime as effective as the destroyed Taliban system.

So where do things now stand? The position of the U.S.-led coalition is eroding, and the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their allies have taken the military initiative. Why?

First, we simply do not have enough troops to control the country, let alone defeat the enemy. The situation around Kabul is worrying, and NATO commanders are moving additional troops into the capital region. In eastern Afghanistan, mujahedin activities are increasing and new insurgent fighters are regularly entering the country from training camps and safe havens in Pakistan. In the southern Afghan provinces—Qandahar, Nimruz, and Helmand—the situation is particularly poor. The Taliban is on the offensive and is pressing hard on our most important military allies, Canada and Britain. Both are facing declining domestic support and are seeking reinforcements from the NATO countries who have so far contributed little to the Alliance’s Afghan operation. Our enemies are well aware of this ebbing public support and, according to al-Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the mujahedin intend to “bleed” coalition forces to cause additional dissent.

Second, the government of President Karzai is incompetent, corrupt, and shows little or no growth potential. Karzai’s opponents’ description of him as “the mayor of Kabul” is not far from the mark; he cannot travel in his own country without foreign guards, and his regime could not survive without U.S. and NATO forces. Indeed, it may not be able to survive with them.

Third, the West’s insistence on the return of democracy to Pakistan has yielded a weak civilian government that is not willing to run the risk of supporting U.S.-and-NATO goals in Afghanistan. The new Pakistani regime is faced with increasing domestic instability and is seeking to reach a modus vivendi with the Pashtun tribes in its western provinces. The recent Potemkin military offensives in the Bajaur Agency and the Swat Valley are preludes to Islamabad conceding a great deal to quiet its western frontier. When Pakistan’s generals tell the civilian regime to conclude a comprehensive deal with the Pashtun tribes, U.S. and NATO commanders will see the territory in the western third of Pakistan—through which run NATO’s main overland resupply routes—added to Afghanistan as part of the hostile theater of operations. They will see steadily increasing Pakistani support for the mujahedin fighting NATO in an effort to keep them faced westward toward Kabul; this is the generals’ last chance to preserve Pakistan as a viable political entity.

So how should we move ahead? We must proceed with a sense of urgency and with a set of clear and obtainable goals, neither of which we have had at any time since October 2001.

We must accept that time is not on our side. Insurgent forces are growing and being supplemented by Muslim fighters coming from across the Islamic world. Karzai’s regime appears to be dealing clandestinely with parts of the Taliban. Heroin production and trafficking are accelerating governmental corruption and funding the insurgents. Traditional Afghan resentment toward foreign occupiers is rising and will increase further as our forces become more engaged in combat in more areas of the country. Moreover, NATO support for the Afghan War is collapsing; the governments of our most important allies—Australia, Canada, and Britain—face the expiration of their Afghan mandates in the next few years and may not be able persuade their parliaments to grant extensions.

Lacking time and popular support, we must adjust and limit our goals. In terms of the original U.S. aims for Afghanistan, we have lost. Nation-building programs can have very little success until the enemy is utterly defeated, in his eyes as well as ours. Economic development, road construction, democracy-building, gender-equality projects, and our other intentions must now be subordinated to three priorities: (1) eliminating the possibility of the military defeat of NATO; (2) destroying to the greatest extent possible before NATO withdraws those insurgent entities—especially al-Qaeda—that can attack inside the United States; and (3) leaving Afghanistan immediately and entirely once the enemy is severely damaged.

Last month, U.S. officials and Pakistani and Afghan representatives met in Washington to map out a new strategy for pursuing the Afghan war far into in the future. Emerging from this conclave, President Obama solemnly outlined a strategy to address what was called a “multifaceted and complex problem.” He notably did not use the word “victory” to describe the strategy’s goal, but he did outline a splendid plan for creating “economic opportunity zones” in Pakistan’s North West Frontier, a scheme that ought to give American parents second thoughts about the value of a Harvard education.

In the context of that announcement—which exuded intellectual anguish over the complexity of the Afghan problem—I recall the words Abraham Lincoln spoke soon after the battle of Antietam in September 1862, when the combination of Robert E. Lee’s tactical brilliance and George McClellan’s lethargy combined to thwart Lincoln’s goal of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia. With anger over the battle’s result and McClellan’s arrogant belief that Lee’s escape served the Union strategy he had crafted, Lincoln told an associate that he despaired over those he deemed “strategizers,” men who insisted that the solution to the war was more complex than it actually was. Lincoln said:

The people have not made up their minds that we are at war with the South. They have not buckled down to the determination to fight this war through; for they have got the idea in their heads that we are going to get out of this fix somehow by strategy! … General McClellan thinks he is going to whip the rebels by strategy; and the army has got the same notion. … The people have not yet made up their minds that we are at war I tell you! They think there is a royal road to peace, and that General McClellan is going to find it. The army has not settled down into the conviction that we are in a terrible war that has got to be fought out—no; and the [Army] officers have not either.

McClellan, like those who have for the past 15 years conceived and directed U.S. strategic policy against the Islamist enemy, did not believe complete victory was necessary to end America’s Civil War. McClellan thought that just enough force should be applied against the South to convince Southern leaders that they could not win the war. Once this realization occurred, North and South would negotiate to end the war and restore the Union as it was before Fort Sumter—that is, with slavery. Lincoln knew better and obdurately held the fort for a Union victory until he could replace McClellan and the other “strategizers.”

Today, there is no substitute for the most comprehensive military victory possible over the Islamists in Afghanistan. But such a victory will only be sufficient if we match it with the thorough dismantling of U.S. interventionist policies in the Muslim world, especially Washington’s support for multiple Arab tyrannies; and its sovereignty-sapping dependence on Arab oil. The terrorists cannot be dissuaded from their goals by a limited application of U.S. military force; they will not accept a return to a pre-9/11 status quo ante.

Sadly for America, our leaders are still strategizing their hearts out, trying to devise a viable U.S. order of battle for Afghanistan. There is nowhere in sight a Grant, Sheridan, or Thomas to give a telling military victory, and neither is there a political leader in either party with the moral courage to challenge and change the foreign interventionism that ultimately will destroy our Republic.

Michael Scheuer, the chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, is the author of Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq.