How a 'good war' in Afghanistan went bad
New York Times
Two years after the Taliban fell to an American-led coalition, a group of NATO ambassadors landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, to survey what appeared to be a triumph — a fresh start for a country ripped apart by years of war with the Soviets and brutal repression by religious extremists.
With a senior American diplomat, Nicholas Burns, leading the way, they thundered around the country in Black Hawk helicopters, with little fear for their safety. They strolled quiet streets in Kandahar and sipped tea with tribal leaders. At a briefing from the United States Central Command, they were told that the Taliban were now a "spent force."
"Some of us were saying, 'Not so fast,' " Burns, now the under secretary of state for political affairs, recalled. "While not a strategic threat, a number of us assumed that the Taliban was too enmeshed in Afghan society to just disappear."
But that skepticism had never taken hold in Washington. Since the 2001 war, American intelligence agencies had reported that the Taliban were so decimated they no longer posed a threat, according to two senior intelligence officials who reviewed the reports.
The American sense of victory had been so robust that the top CIA specialists and elite Special Forces units who had helped liberate Afghanistan had long since moved on to the next war, in Iraq.
Those sweeping miscalculations were part of a pattern of assessments and decisions that helped send what many in the American military call "the good war" off course.
Like Osama bin Laden and his deputies, the Taliban had found refuge in Pakistan and regrouped as the American focus wavered. Taliban fighters seeped back over the border, driving up the suicide attacks and roadside bombings by as much as 25 percent this spring, and forcing NATO and American troops into battles to retake previously liberated villages in southern Afghanistan.
They have scored some successes recently, and since the 2001 invasion, there have been improvements in health care, education and the economy, as well as the quality of life in the cities. But Afghanistan's embattled president, Hamid Karzai, said in Washington last week that security in his country had "definitely deteriorated." One former national security official called that "a very diplomatic understatement."
President George W. Bush's critics have long contended that the Iraq war has diminished America's effort in Afghanistan, which the administration has denied, but an examination of how the policy unfolded within the administration reveals a deep divide over how to proceed in Afghanistan and a series of decisions that at times seemed to relegate it to an afterthought as Iraq unraveled.
Statements from the White House, including from the president, in support of Afghanistan were resolute, but behind them was a halting, sometimes reluctant commitment to solving Afghanistan's myriad problems, according to dozens of interviews in the United States, at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
At critical moments in the fight for Afghanistan, the Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq, including elite CIA teams and Special Forces units involved in the search for terrorists. As sophisticated Predator spy planes rolled off assembly lines in the United States, they were shipped to Iraq, undercutting the search for Taliban and terrorist leaders, according to senior military and intelligence officials.
As defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld claimed credit for toppling the Taliban with light, fast forces. But in a move that foreshadowed America's trouble in Iraq, he failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, and Karzai, the administration's handpicked president, for a large international force. As the situation deteriorated, Rumsfeld and other administration officials reversed course and cajoled European allies into sending troops.
A Shift of Resources to Iraq
In October 2002, Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, visited the new Kuwait City headquarters of Lieutenant Gen David McKiernan, who was already planning the Iraq invasion. Meeting in a sheet metal warehouse, Grenier asked General McKiernan what his intelligence needs would be in Iraq. The answer was simple. "They wanted as much as they could get," Grenier said.
Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, Grenier said in an interview, "the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq," including the agency's most skilled counterterrorism specialists and Middle East and paramilitary operatives.
That reduced the United States' influence over powerful Afghan warlords who were refusing to turn over to the central government tens of millions of dollars they had collected as customs payments at border crossings.
While the CIA replaced officers shifted to Iraq, Grenier said, it did so with younger agents, who lacked the knowledge and influence of the veterans. "I think we could have done a lot more on the Afghan side if we had more experienced folks," he said.
A former senior official of the Pentagon's Central Command, which was running both wars, said that as the Iraq planning sped up, the military's covert Special Mission Units, like Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six, shifted to Iraq from Afghanistan.
So did aerial surveillance "platforms" like the Predator, a remotely piloted spy plane armed with Hellfire missiles that had been effective at identifying targets in the mountains of Afghanistan. Predators were not shifted directly from Afghanistan to Iraq, according to the former official, but as new Predators were produced, they went to Iraq.
"We were economizing in Afghanistan," said the former official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "The marginal return for one more platform in Afghanistan is so much greater than for one more in Iraq."
The shift in priorities became apparent to Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon's former comptroller, as planning for the Iraq war was in high gear in the fall of 2002. Rumsfeld asked him to serve as the Pentagon's reconstruction coordinator in Afghanistan. It was an odd role for the comptroller, whose primary task is managing the Pentagon's $400 billion a year budget.
"The fact that they went to the comptroller to do something like that was in part a function of their growing preoccupation with Iraq," said Zakheim, who left the administration in 2004. "They needed somebody, given that the top tier was covering Iraq."
In an interview, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, insisted that there was no diversion of resources from Afghanistan, and he cited recently declassified statistics to show that troop levels in Afghanistan rose at crucial moments — like the 2004 Afghan election — even after the Iraq war began.
But the former Central Command official said: "If we were not in Iraq, we would have double or triple the number of Predators across Afghanistan, looking for Taliban and peering into the tribal areas. We'd have the 'black' Special Forces you most need to conduct precision operations. We'd have more CIA"
"We're simply in a world of limited resources, and those resources are in Iraq," the former official added. "Anyone who tells you differently is blowing smoke."