The South Asia Channel

The Eight Years’ War

By J Alexander Thier

On October 7, 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. U.S. President George W. Bush announced that "U.S. forces have begun strikes on terrorist camps of al Qaeda, and the military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan." He closed the statement with this self-appraisal: "To all the men and women in our military... I say this: your mission is defined; your objectives are clear; your goal is just."

This response to the events of September 11, 2001 was just, but the mission and objectives were never clear. Even in those earliest days, virtually devoid of self-doubt, there was a deep tension between the "war on terror" and the effort to create a sustainable anti-al Qaeda status quo in the wake of violent regime change.

The following spring, Bush made a speech at the Virginia Military Institute -- apparently burying his administration's disdain for nation-building -- by calling for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan.  This speech was less a volte face than an acknowledgment of existing policy. Through the Bonn process in December 2001 that established an interim government and an international pledging conference in Tokyo in early 2002, Afghans and the international community had voted overwhelmingly for an approach that would reconstruct, and even democratize, war-torn Afghanistan. Sadly, despite the rhetoric, the scale of the effort needed to overcome Afghanistan's enormous challenges was never realized.

Eight years on, we are still betwixt and between when it comes to defining our objectives for Afghanistan. This conundrum is not due to mission creep or waffling, but rather the inexorable logic of intervention and the limitations of our capabilities. Afghanistan, its fabric of governance and society rent by war, became a petri dish of Islamist extremism and global jihadists. Unrepaired, its inaccessible landscape would continue to produce these horrific aberrations. And so, logically, to succeed in the anti-terror mission, we had not only to throw the bastards out, but put in something else that would prevent them from coming back.

Creating viable, legitimate governments out of the ashes of decades of conflict is a low-probability undertaking even in the best of circumstances. Everything can, and will, go wrong. Internationals will do too much, crowding out indigenous initiative, or too little, leaving the green shoots of renewal to whither. International troops will be seen as aggressive occupiers, or as ineffectual and value-neutral, failing to contain spoilers. A strong domestic leader will rile factional, ethnic, or sectarian divisions and a weak one will fail to unify in divisive times. A failure to deal with past abuses by powerful actors will undermine the possibility for reconciliation in society, or digging up the past will prevent the possibility for a stable political settlement. Indeed, every one of these charges has been made in Afghanistan in the last eight years.

Today our stated objectives remain largely the same -- destroy al Qaeda and build some semblance of responsible government in Afghanistan that can prevent the return of al Qaeda and provide some modicum of succor to its beleaguered population than the last three decades of despotism and chaos.

So what is different? On the plus side, it finally looks like the U.S. is serious about achieving these goals. In 2002, there were 10,000 international forces in Afghanistan. Now there are in excess of 100,000. U.S. spending on the creation of a new Afghan National Army and Police -- a centerpiece of our strategy from the start -- was $191 million in 2002. The 2010 request is $7.5 billion. The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan has six ambassadors, we are recruiting hundreds of civilians for missions around the country, and the diplomatic heavyweight of his generation, Richard Holbrooke, has been given license to pull together talent and resources from across the government to barnstorm the region. And our new, young, and energetic president is fully engaged.

On the negative side is everything else. The warlords -- so power-mad and destructive during the civil war of the 1990s that even the Taliban were a better alternative -- have taken over the asylum. Their ascendancy and association with the government, along with the narco-mafia, once again has the Afghans looking for alternatives. The insurgency grows in brutality and reach every year. For eight years the Afghan government and their international partners have stood up repeatedly at lavish international conferences pledging security, good governance, accountability, and economic development for Afghanistan. Over $65 billion has been pledged for Afghanistan since 2001. Yet, most Afghans -- especially those in the south and east, where the insurgency has most affected the country -- have not seen the fruits of promises.

The biggest difference of all, though, may be time. Eight years ago, the Afghan people, the American people, and the rest of our partners the international community believed that our goals were both just and achievable. Now there is a crisis of confidence that even with the best of intentions we can achieve our goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

For those of us who witnessed Afghanistan in its darkest days before 2001, we still hope it can get better, and know it can get far worse. There are also larger issues at stake, for the U.S., for NATO, and the region. What we need now, as in 2001, is renewed leadership from both the Afghans and the U.S. and NATO to forge a just and reasonable path, bringing the vast majority of Afghans, Europeans, and Americans, who still want peace in Afghanistan, together to rebuild the coalition and improve our combined performance. As President Obama said in France in April 2009, "This is a mission that tests whether nations can come together in common purpose on behalf of our common security."

J Alexander Thier is the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Institute of Peace. He is co-author and editor of "The Future of Afghanistan" (USIP, 2009). He lived in Afghanistan for about 7 of the last 16 years, and travels there frequently.

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